The original Wild Child: Thomas Bewick

An original Thomas Bewick wood-engraved block

Fun, adventurous and brave aren't the usual three words associated with 18th Century artists, however, Thomas Bewick wasn't like other artists... and he wasn't afraid to show us so.

In the beginning...

Thomas Bewick was born in 1753, the first child of John and Jane Bewick. 

His parents had taken over the tenancy of Cherryburn from Thomas Bewick’s grandfather, who had farmed there since at least 1700. Later, Bewick helped out on the farm too, by looking after the sheep and knocking over mole hills.  

The Bewicks maintained the little farm with a range of livestock and later, in 1766–1781, supplemented their income by running Mickley Colliery, a small mine-working in the fields near the house.

Visit Cherryburn to see the little cottage where Thomas Bewick lived
Cherryburn cottage with farm animals in the shot

The original "Wild Child"

Thomas Bewick was a strong-willed and independent child, quite often getting up to mischief. However, he loved the countryside, spending most of his early life playing outside and watching the local wildlife. He fished in the river, looked for birds’ nests, climbed trees and sometimes ran around stark naked with his friends. 

At the same time, Thomas attended the local school at Mickley, frequently played truant to avoid corporal punishment. Eventually he moved to the school in Ovingham run by the local vicar, where he learned reading, writing and mathematics, but his independent attitude meant that he was always in trouble. On one occasion when he was locked in the church as a punishment, Thomas climbed up one of the pillars and hid so that when his teacher came to check on him, he was able to escape while the teacher searched. 

Thomas always preferred drawing to schoolwork and spent hours doodling, especially wildlife. He drew on the corners of his books, on spare paper, in chalk on the floor, on slates and on wood, even using a pin to draw on the cover of his hymnbook at church on Sundays. 

A young apprentice

Young Thomas showed promise as a wood engraver, but mostly undertook the metal engraving. He finished his apprenticeship in 1774, and then returned to live at Cherryburn. 

In 1776 Thomas, still as adventurous as he had been as a child, spent the summer walking across Scotland. He enjoyed himself immensely and regretted having to leave the Highlands to return to work. The following year he moved south to London to try to pursue a career there, but returned to the North East after quickly taking a dislike to the city. He remained in the North East for the rest of his life and who could blame him?

See traditional 18th Century printing techniques at Cherryburn
Printing equipment in the Press Room at Cherryburn

Finding his skill

Thomas developed a way of engraving wood which could rival the fine detail of metal engraving. Instead of using wood cut along the grain, he used blocks of wood which had been cut across. This wood was tougher and able to withstand the close cutting required for detailed images. By varying the depth of his cuts, Thomas could create different sections which when inked properly, printed in lighter and darker shades of grey, allowing him to create great depth in his images.

In 1781 he decided to showcase his skill in a book called A General History of Quadrupeds, in which he illustrated 199 different four-legged animals. These illustrations were drawn from a combination of pre-existing images, from stuffed animals in taxidermy collections and his own drawings taken from life. The book was very popular, running to eight editions in his lifetime. He built on his success by creating a two-volume History of British Birds, and then an illustrated edition of Aesop's Fables.  

Thomas Bewick was famous as an illustrator during his own lifetime and people were already beginning to collect his work and continued to do so after his death in 1828.