Thomas Bewick - Scientist of the Day
Thomas Bewick, an English artist and print maker, was born Aug. 12, 1753. Bewick pioneered the illustrating technique known as wood engraving, where the artist works on the end grain of a block of wood, instead of the side grain, and uses the burin of the engraver, rather than the knife of the woodcutter, to carve the block. Wood engravings are usually small and detailed, and have the advantage of being able to be printed right along with the type, instead of on a separate press. Bewick specialized in creating prints of mammals and birds; his A General History of Quadrupeds was published in 1790, and A History of British Birds in 1797-1804, and both are filled with exceptionally high-quality images. We see several samples above: a hoopoe, and a woodlark. Remember, if you are viewing these on a large screen, that the original woodblock’s are only about 3” by 2” in size.
One other charming feature of Bewick’s books are the tailpieces that were often added to the open spaces at the end of articles and chapters. We see above Bewick’s tiny engraving of Aesop’s fable of the raven and the pitcher.
We displayed the 1809 edition of Bewick’s History of British Birds in our 2009 exhibition, The Grandeur of Life, where you may see two more of his wood engravings, a barn owl and a kingfisher. We have since acquired the 1797-1804 first edition of this work for our History of Science Collection.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City