History of Cherryburn and Thomas Bewick
- 10 July 2022
Set in a tranquil garden with views across the Tyne Valley, Cherryburn is the birthplace of renowned Northumbrian artist Thomas Bewick. A wood engraver and naturalist, he revolutionised print art in Georgian England. Learn about Bewick’s life, the history of Cherryburn and how his time here inspired his artwork.
The history of Cherryburn cottage and farmhouse
The Bewick family’s history at Cherryburn dates to the early 18th century – Thomas Bewick’s grandfather farmed here from around 1700.
Bewick's parents, John and Jane, subsequently took over the tenancy of Cherryburn, and maintained the cottage and little farm with its range of livestock. Later, from 1766 to 1781, they supplemented their income by running the small Mickley Colliery, mine workings in the fields near the house.
The newer farmhouse building was built in the 19th century by the family of Bewick's brother, after they outgrew the cottage. Today it houses a museum that chronicles Bewick’s life and artworks.
The story of Thomas Bewick
Fun, adventurous and brave aren't usually the words we’d use to describe 18th-century artists. But Thomas Bewick wasn't like other artists ...
The early years
Born in 1753, Thomas was the first child of John and Jane Bewick. He loved the countryside and spent most of his early life playing outside and watching the local wildlife. Thomas helped on the farm too, by looking after the sheep and knocking over molehills. He fished in the river, looked for birds’ nests, climbed trees and sometimes ran around stark naked with his friends.
Thomas attended the local school at Mickley but often got up to mischief and frequently played truant to avoid corporal punishment. Eventually he moved to the school in Ovingham, which was run by the local vicar. Here, he learned reading, writing and mathematics, but his independent attitude meant that he was always in trouble.
On one occasion, Thomas was locked in the church as a punishment, but he climbed up one of the pillars and hid so he could escape when his teacher came to check on him.
An interest in art
Thomas much 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. He even used a pin to draw on the cover of his hymnbook at church on Sundays.
The young apprentice
Young Thomas took an apprenticeship and showed promise as a wood engraver, but mostly undertook work engraving metal. He finished his apprenticeship in 1774, and then returned to live at Cherryburn.
Still as adventurous as he had been during childhood, Thomas spent the summer of 1776 walking across Scotland. He enjoyed himself immensely and regretted having to leave the Highlands to return to work.
He moved to London the following year to pursue a career there, but returned to the North East after taking a dislike to the city. Bewick remained in the North East for the rest of his life – and who could blame him?
Perfecting his skills
In the years following his return, Thomas developed a way of engraving wood that could rival the fine detail of metal engraving. Instead of using wood cut along the grain, he used blocks of wood that had been cut across it.
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 that, when inked properly, printed in lighter and darker shades of grey, allowing him to create great depth in his images.
In 1781 Bewick showcased his skill in his book A General History of Quadrupeds. In it, he illustrated 199 different four-legged animals, drawn using pre-existing images, animals in taxidermy collections and his own drawings for reference. The book proved very popular, running to eight editions during his lifetime.
A selection of Thomas Bewick's engravings
An engraving from Thomas Bewick's General History of Quadrupeds (1790).
Recognition in life and death
Thomas Bewick built on his success by creating his two-volume History of British Birds, followed by an illustrated edition of Aesop's Fables.
He was famous as an illustrator during his own lifetime and people were already beginning to collect his work before his death in 1828. Today Bewick is remembered as one of Northumberland’s greatest artists and his work continues to inspire artists around the world.
There’s lots to discover at the birthplace of Thomas Bewick, from watching a printing demonstration and seeing his intricate artworks to spending time in the tranquil garden.
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