A Selection of Engravings on Wood

A Selection of Engravings on Wood

A Selection of Engravings on Wood

A Selection of Engravings on Wood

Excerpt

On a December evening getting on for a hundred years ago old Thomas Carlyle sat up and read a book before going to bed, very likely turning over the pages by the lamplight in the attic study in Cheyne Row which he had vainly tried to isolate from the noises and mists of riverside London by building double walls. The book had been published in Newcastle three years before, and had been sent to him as a book which was making new admirers for its long dead author. It was Thomas Bewick's Memoir, written in the 1820's, but treasured unpublished until 1862.

The next morning Carlyle wrote to his friend John Ruskin and summed up Bewick in a sentence which is a fair estimate: "Not a great man at all; but a very true of his sort, a well completed and a very enviable--living there in communion with the skies and woods and brooks, not here in ditto with the London Fogs, the roaring witchmongeries, and railway yellings and howlings."

But Ruskin held Bewick in less cautious esteem; and though a study of Ruskiniana will usually discover contradictory judgments about most artists, his pronouncements about Bewick are consistently enthusiastic. He prescribed the Memoir for all his drawing students, and spoke of its author in the terms of a publisher's blurb-- "the magnificent artistic power, the flawless virtue, veracity, tenderness, the infinite humour of the man". He compared Bewick to Botticelli and Paul Veronese. He claimed that no drawing had been as subtle as Bewick's since the fifteenth century, except Holbein's and Turner's. The only qualification of his admiration was that Bewick, untrained ("unhelped, but also unharmed"), could draw only the lower classes of creation: he could draw the poor, but not the rich; he could draw a pig, but not a Venus; because, as Ruskin explained it, Bewick was not a gentleman; and he regretted a little Bewick's "love of ugliness which is in the English soul", to be found also in Hogarth and Cruikshank. But he backed his opinion by paying 73 guineas for half a dozen of Bewick's tiny watercolours, and another 43 guineas for thirty of his pencil drawings--spending what was the equivalent of at least double to-day.

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