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Bewick's History of British birds

Wood engravings depicting a red-legged crow; aand a group of boys building a snowmanWood engravings depicting a red-legged crow; and a group of boys building a snowmanEvery aspect of book production was transformed by the Industrial Revolution. The manufacture of paper, type and printer’s ink, the printing press itself, the materials and technique of binding were all profoundly affected by technical innovation.

The mechanisation of printing enabled publishers to meet the demands of their expanding market, as literacy spread, mass education was introduced and the book-reading public began to include the growing urban and lower middle classes.

Despite, or perhaps because of this sea change, the 19th century also witnessed a renaissance in the art of fine printing. In the early years of the century Thomas Bewick pioneered the revival of wood engraving, while in the late Victorian period William Morris, reacting against what he saw as the ugliness of mass-produced books, founded the Kelmscott Press in conscious emulation of the earliest printers.

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), the son of a Northumberland tenant farmer and collier, was largely responsible for the British revival of the delicate art of wood engraving and for its gradual supplanting of copperplate engraving as a means of book illustration.

Wood engravings are made by incising the design on the end-grain of a wooden block. They can be printed in the same press as a book’s textblock, thus enabling a unity of both production and design.

Apprenticed to Newcastle engraver Ralph Beilby, Bewick combined artistic genius with consummate technical skill and a sound business sense. Throughout his life he had a deep love of the English countryside and a keen interest in natural history, both reflected in his best known and most successful work, the two-volume History of British birds.

The success of this work was mainly due to the outstanding quality of the illustrations. Their close attention to detail satisfied the naturalist, while the evocative depiction of the birds’ habitats made the book an inspirational work for the many contemporary readers who shared the Romantic poets’ attachment to the natural landscape.

Just as important as the illustrations of the birds themselves are the tail-pieces which follow each description. Some are straightforward depictions of rural scenes or activities (farmyards, snowy fields, cats, men fishing); some show a sometimes dark sense of humour (a man urinating against a tree, a boy leading a blind beggar past a sign warning of man-traps); others suggest a melancholy romanticism. 

Readers of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will remember how in the novel’s opening chapter Jane, then a child of 10, loses herself in the contemplation of these evocative engravings:

I cannot tell what sentiment haunted the quiet solitary churchyard, with its inscribed headstone;  its gate, its two trees, its low horizon, girdled by a low wall, and its newly-risen crescent, attesting the hour of eventide … Each picture told a story;  mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting.

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