Magazine article The Spectator

John Bull as a Master of Delicacy

Magazine article The Spectator

John Bull as a Master of Delicacy

Article excerpt

NATURE'S ENGRAVER by Jenny Uglow Faber, £20, pp. 458, ISBN ISBN 0571223745 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

This is a book that tells the reader a great deal about a certain kind of Englishman in his interesting times (1753-1828), and also raises the irritating question -- the distinction, if any, between art and craft.

Thomas Bewick, wood-engraver, was a 'provincial' craftsman who became a great artist. John Ruskin saw this: 'The plumage in Bewick's birds is the most masterly thing ever done in woodcutting; it is worked just as Paolo Veronese would have worked in wood if he had taken to it, ' thereby, it seems, promoting Bewick to the artistic top table.

However, Ruskin remains loftily puzzled.

'Ruskin and his followers, ' says Uglow, 'placed Bewick as a country clod . . .because he was uneducated and not a gentleman he could draw the poor but not the rich, "a pig but not an Aphrodite".' Ruskin prefaces his high praise with a social qualification -- 'however failing in grace and scholarship'.

The comforting thought is that Bewick wouldn't have cared a straw, would have snorted, John Bull-like, and gone on (as he did go on) designing labels for beer bottles in order to earn his living. At the same time -- usually his spare time, at night, by candlelight -- he was engraving tiny scenes and birds and animals with a detailed intensity no one has ever surpassed.

His portrait painted in his sixties confirms his John Bull appearance, 'a plain, nononsense man who worked in a brown silk cap to hide a bald patch, wore worsted stockings, spoiled his children, and went to the pub in the evening'.

Born on the bank of the Tyne, between Hexham and Newcastle, son of a smallholding farmer (also a small mine-owner), his childhood sounds unusually wild. He was systematically a truant from school, to go fishing and to draw obsessively on whatever surface he could find, even gravestones; a gang-leader in mischief and one who learned to stand up for himself.

He was never going to make a farmer.

At 14 he was apprenticed to a Newcastle engraver, Ralph Beilby, who was to play a considerable part in Bewick's life, which is remarkable in its continuity. Soon he could engrave as well as his master, who kept the more interesting work for himself, and Bewick chafed: he never had any doubt about his ability.

Apprenticeship over, a brief time in London, which he loathed, then a return to Newcastle to become, a little doubtfully, Beilby's partner, and life goes on as before. …

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