The Revd Thomas Hugo (1820–76) was not very successful in his clerical career – he spent ten years as the perpetual curate of the chapel of All Saints within the parish of St Botolph without Bishopsgate in London, a positively Trollopian-sounding cure of souls. This might have been because he made no secret of his high-church views, or because he spent a lot of time in non-clerical pursuits. He was a different times a member of the British Archaeological Association, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Linnean Society, and the Royal Society of Literature, and he contributed regularly to the publications of all these learned societies. But his chief obsession was for the woodcuts of Thomas Bewick.
Remember the opening chapter of Jane Eyre, where the lonely, bullied child is seeking refuge behind the curtains in the breakfast room? The book she takes with her is Bewick’s History of British Birds: it must have been volume 2 (published in 1804), on water birds, as she finds herself fascinated by the bleakness of the solitary northern rocks on which the seabirds congregate. The famous scene ends with the thuggish John Reed throwing the book at Jane’s head, Jane’s revolt, her night in the red-room, and the whole sequence of cause and effect which end up in ‘Reader, I married him.’
Bewick had been dead for nearly twenty years when Jane Eyre was published; nearly twenty years after that, in 1866, Thomas Hugo published the work for which he is best remembered: The Bewick Collector: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Works of Thomas and John Bewick, which he followed up two years later with A Supplement to a Descriptive Catalogue of the Works of Thomas and John Bewick. He had been collecting both Bewick prints and his original wooden blocks for years – enthusiastically, but, it sadly appears, without much critical discrimination. It is now thought that many of his attributions to any of the Bewick family are simply wrong, but at the time and for many years afterwards Hugo’s magnum opus was the only reliable reference work on an artist who has been enchanting the eye ever since Thomas, at the end of his apprenticeship, won a prize of seven guineas for his vignette of Gay’s fable of ‘The Huntsman and the Hound’.
Thomas Bewick was born into a Northumbrian farming family in 1753, and at the age of fourteen was apprenticed to the Newcastle engraver Ralph Beilby. He had been drawing on scraps of paper (and the walls of his own and neighbours houses’) since he was very small, but he found his true calling when he was given a very prosaic task: the geometrical diagrams for Charles Hutton’s Treatise on Mensuration were to be engraved in wood, and Beilby, who preferred working in metal, handed the task to his apprentice. As his skill grew, he became much in demand, and spent a few months in London in 1776, but he didn’t enjoy city life, and soon returned north.
In partnership with Beilby, he started working on illustrations for childrens’ books (though wood-, as opposed to metal-, engraving was always a small proportion of the firm’s output). The success of more than eighty such titles led to more ambitious works, beginning in 1790 with A General History of Quadrupeds. Apparently, Beilby wrote most of the words (‘being of a bookish, or reading turn’), and Bewick provided the images – and both men did all the work in the evenings, after their ‘official’ labours had finished. We are just reissuing this enchanting work, of which the aim was to describe and depict the domestic animals that ‘so materially contribute to the strength, the wealth, and the happiness of this kingdom’. More exotic beasts were also included, from the lion and the elephant to the skunk and the spotted hyena, but the partners show a distinct preference for animals useful to man, from the Lapland reindeer to the ‘Comforter’, a lap-dog described as ‘a most elegant little animal, … generally kept by the ladies as an attendant of the toilette or the drawing-room’.
What I find remarkable about this book is its effect on its readers: it is extraordinary to realise that nobody had attempted to produce an accurately illustrated natural history of animals before. (In Britain, only Thomas Pennant could be regarded as a precursor, and his works tended to be large-format and expensive in their earliest editions.) Fourteen thousand copies were sold, and the praise rolled in. The next spare-time venture was to be birds: the original plan was for ALL birds, but for practical reasons the work was restricted to British species. The first volume (land birds, starting with a magnificent golden eagle) was published in 1797, and the second, with the water birds which captured the imagination of Jane Eyre, seven years later. (We will be reissuing both in September 2013.)
Many of the images were taken from the natural history collection of Marmaduke Tunstall, a Yorkshire landowner (who incidentally possessed some bird specimens brought back from the South Seas by Joseph Banks). In 1789, Tunstall had commissioned an engraving of his ‘Chillingham Bull’ from Bewick: it was one of the most successful and famous of his single prints. But by the end of 1797, the partnership with Beilby had come to an end (they seem to have quarrelled about the order of precedence on title pages), and the second volume was produced by Bewick alone, though with help from friends on the text, and apprentices on the engravings.
In the bird volumes, the little head- and tail-pieces which also adorned the Quadrupeds book become an even more marked feature. These jeux d’esprit of Bewick’s are not necessarily related to the main content of the book: they are illustrations of fables, sometimes cautionary tales, but all created with his characteristic attention to detail, and a sense of deep rural tranquillity which somehow pervades even the more sinister scenes.
Bewick died in 1828, leaving his four children well provided for and a large number of apprentices (including his younger brother and his only son) secure in their craft. Is he the greatest wood engraver ever? Certainly, in his day he was famous at all levels of society, not just – or even mostly – for his books but for the exquisite ‘jobbing’ work he produced: the ephemera such as the prints, advertisements, alphabets and primers which Thomas Hugo pursued and catalogued with such devotion. Hugo’s splendid collection was sold at Sotheby’s in 1877. Where are the woodblocks now?