Caring for Bewick's blocks

Christopher Bacon printing from a Bewick block

Thomas Bewick's birthplace is a little gem tucked away in Northumberland. Bewick's talent is quite something and his blocks are a legacy to his history.

Careful cleaning by master printer Christopher Bacon has uncovered remarkable features buried under layers of black ink for nearly two centuries and now brought to light.

Visible in the background of Jupiter and the Ass created by Bewick for an edition of Aesop’s Fables, can be seen what is believed to be a cityscape of early 19th century Newcastle.

It is a tantalising view that Dr Peter Quinn, chairman of the Newcastle-based Bewick Society which promotes the work of the engraver, naturalist, illustrator and author, says he had never spotted before Christopher was called on by the National Trust to produce the limited printings.

“One of the things about these prints is that they have been produced to the highest quality, probably a higher quality than Bewick had even envisaged, and it is one of the joys of his blocks that we are still able to use them in this way.

“In Bewick’s time these blocks would have been used several hundred times, but part of the appeal of these new limited printings is that Christopher Bacon has thoroughly and expertly cleaned them, which has allowed him to get the detail from the engravings that had been there originally but had not been realised in the printing in the past.

“The Jupiter and the Ass has a wonderful view of a distant city similar to Newcastle, which has surprised me as I had never noticed there was anything like that in the background before.

“I know people who have looked closely at the Mountain Sparrow many times and not noticed before that there is a man hanging from a gibbet in the background. But it shows the remarkable clarity that Christopher has been able to achieve and which you only register in a fine print.”

“In the Dog and Moon Christopher has been able to print the dog dark and the moon silvery grey, which in the original books was not possible, and each of the birds comes into their own. This is a unique thing."

For his part Christopher, an early member of the Bewick Society who works alongside his daughter at his printing workshop near Hexham, said the cleaning had allowed him to “reveal quite a bit of detail that had been obscured. It seemed silly not to do the best we could if we were going to all that trouble.

“But we are only showing what was there in the first place. Bewick was an engraver and didn’t do the printing. He trusted that to nearby printers and publishers in Newcastle, and depending on their quality not all the detail came out.

“These limited printings have been produced like articles of fine art. It is a very different business to what Bewick would have known, but I hope what we have done today would have pleased TB.

“I just want to think that we have done the best we can.”