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Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick…

Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (2006)

by Jenny Uglow

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I enjoyed this book, not least because it contained some absolutely amazing woodcuts, but also because it provided a view to a world not so far away in time but light years away in technology and way of life. ( )
  andersonden | Dec 6, 2008 |
I was enthralled by this book about the life and work of the 18th/19th century engraver. I didn't know anything about him before reading this, but the author's style made me feel as if I knew him well by the end of the book, and I was sorry to have finished it. ( )
  Teazle | Mar 24, 2008 |
Opening Nature’s Engraver, the first thing I realized was that I already knew Thomas Bewick. I had seen his engravings and woodcuts in countless books I had read over the years—small vignettes gracing the ends of chapters, decorating the frontispieces of old novels, illustrating the odd memoir or traveler’s diary. I had seen, but obviously never looked, my eyes sliding over the illustrations as mere decorations to the accompanying story.

Jenny Uglow corrected my error immediately. One of the first reproductions she includes in this engaging biography is a small scene (most of Bewick’s woodcuts were small in size, to fit their use in printing) of a man looking at the ruins of an old wall on the edge of a forest. I looked at the picture on the page before I read the text and thought, “very pretty.” And then went on to read Uglow’s description: “Before me was a tiny scene, not a lyrical country lane, but a man pissing against a wall.”

I stopped in shock and looked back at the image. I had thought the man was looking at the wall—looking, perhaps, at an ancient inscription. Now I saw how he, with his back to the viewer, had canted his hips forward, his two hands reaching down out of sight in front of him. There was no inscription to be deciphered. There is a wisp, a suggestion of something falling through the air, and a telltale line arcing downwards from the man’s own shadow on the wall.

What had I thought I was seeing? I had thought, obviously, that eighteenth century woodcut engravers would not waste their efforts carefully drawing a picture of a man peeing on a wall. I wondered what Jane Eyre would have thought.

That first woodcut illustrates perfectly (not to mention graphically) the rather joyous point that Uglow spends the rest of the biography making—in a comprehensive way over the course of some 400 pages; that nothing was beneath Bewick’s notice. Every moment, every action, was an occasion to be recorded, illustrated, interpreted and remembered. Life seemed endlessly fascinating to the artist. When Bewick created an engraving, even the smallest lines had meaning. In the background of the picture of a horse he draws the kitchen maid flirting with a shepherd, and neglecting the care of the children of the house. In an engraving of two old soldiers who meet upon a road he includes details of uniform that announce their companies, and implies the battles that cost each a limb. Bewick may draw pictures, but his pictures all tell stories.

Uglow gives the same attention to narrative and fine detail in portraying the life of Thomas Bewick as the man himself devoted to each of his thousands of woodcuts, with equally happy results. The wealth of detail in a lesser writer might result in a rather dense book, but Uglow never forgets that facts are not as important as context. Her biography is highly erudite, but so charmingly written that one hardly notices. Research never gets in the way of story. . .read full review
1 vote southernbooklady | Dec 16, 2007 |
Jenny Uglow's new biography Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is one of the best examples of the genre I've read this year. Uglow has captured the spirit and nature of Bewick remarkably well, and the text is nicely complemented by the many delightful examples of Bewick's woodcuts scattered throughout.

Beyond the straight retelling of Bewick's life and business (interesting though that is), Uglow provides a well-researched look at the history of book illustration in England and the gradual development of the various engraving processes which Bewick largely scorned in favor of the more traditional woodcut (a form of which he must be counted one of the great masters). The book charts his rise from "wild child" of the English north to acclaimed illustrator, in high demand by the top publishers and authors of England.

A short section in which Uglow discusses Bewick's impact on some other British literary figures (Wordsworth, the Brontës, &c.) was particularly fascinating, as was her recounting of a meeting between Bewick and John James Audubon (two great artists whose styles were infintely different, but each marvelous in its own way).

Importantly, Uglow also takes us beyond Bewick as artist and naturalist, giving her reader a view of the man which most of his contemporaries might not have had: an unorthodox deist in religion, Bewick was also fairly radical in his politics, joining many of his Newcastle neighbors in actively supporting pacificist principles and political candidates during the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. For people like Bewick, best known for a single occupation, I think it's easy (at least it is for me) to see them in a sort of vacuum, just doing their thing; Uglow's book does a good job of adding those additional dimensions that often go unconsidered.

I'll add my obligatory comment about the unsatisfactory citation style (references go unnoted in the text), but that's the only minor fault with this excellent biography.

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2007/08/book-review-natures-engraver.html ( )
  JBD1 | Aug 23, 2007 |
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The Tyne has changed course often since Thomas Bewick was born here two hundred and fifty years ago.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374112363, Hardcover)

At the end of the eighteenth century, Britain, and much of the Western world, fell in love with nature. Thomas Bewick's History of British Birds marked the moment, the first "field guide" for ordinary people, illustrated with woodcuts of astonishing accuracy and beauty. But his work was far more than a mere guide,
for in the vivid vignettes scattered through the book, Bewick captured the vanishing world of rural English life. In this superb biography, Jenny Uglow tells the story of the farmer's son from Tyneside who influenced book illustration for a century to come. It is a story of violent change, radical politics, lost ways of life, and the beauty of the wild--a journey to the beginning of our lasting obsession with the natural world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:47 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In this illustrated biography, Jenny Uglow tells the story of Thomas Bewick, a farmer's son from Tyneside who never courted fame yet revolutionised wood-engraving. Originally published: 2006.

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