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Thomas Bewick and His Tail Pieces

Bewick Depicting Himself as a Traveler Drinking Water from His Hat

Bewick Depicting Himself as a Traveler Drinking Water from His Hat

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) was one of Britain’s great unsung artists. Known as an engraver and a naturalist (he authored A History of British Birds), he won the admiration of no less than John James Audubon, who visited him in 1827:

As length we reached the dwelling of the Engraver, and I was at once shewn his workshop. There I met the old man, who, coming towards me, welcomed me with a hearty shake of the hand, and for a moment took off a cotton night-cap, somewhat soiled by the smoke of the place. He was a tall stout man, with a large head, and with eyes placed farther apart than those of any man I have evr seen: a perfect old Englishman, full of life, although seventy-four years of age, active and prompt in his labors. Presently, he proposed shewing me the work he was at, and went on with his tools. It was a small vignette, cut on a block of boxwood not more than than three by two inches in surface, and represented a dog frightened at night by what he fancied to be living objects, but were actually roots and branches of trees, rocks, and other objects bearing the semblance of men. This curious piece of art, like all his works, was exquisite.

The illustration described by Audubon is shown below and constitutes one of the artist’s famous tail-pieces, which were dashed off to fill blank space at the end of a chapter.

 

The Tail Piece Described by Audubon

The Tail Piece Described by Audubon

This is not to detract from Bewick’s carefully observed engravings of birds and mammals of his native Northumberland. It’s merely to admit that I am not as acute an observer of nature as Bewick was and could not appreciate them as much as other naturalists such as Audubon and Sir Joseph Banks.

One image that afforded me some amusement was of a traveler urinating on the wall of a Roman ruin:

How Not to Appreciate a Roman Ruin

How Not to Appreciate a Roman Ruin

Note the shadow of the traveler cast on the wall, something one doesn’t usually see on a casual illustration of this sort. But Bewick was always meticulous in his observations.