Happiness Is Having Thomas Bewick’s “History of British Birds” On Your Knee

Jane Eyre fans, join me in remembering how we first meet Charlotte Brontë’s heroine. She’s sitting cross-legged in a window seat screened by scarlet drapes on a dreary November afternoon, paging through Bewick’s History of British Birds as she looks out the window. “Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped undTitle page of volume 2, History of British Birds, by Thomas Bewick, Ohio Historical Society Archives/Libraryerstanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting….,” Jane reflects. “…With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy; happy at least in my way.”

While I’ve read the classic page-turner about the independent young governess and her moody, mysterious employer dozens of times, I didn’t have the occasion to seek out a copy of Bewick’s book until I worked in Miami University’s Walter Havighurst Special Collections library. When I pulled items to share during class visits, I tried to make connections between them that would encourage students to do the same in their own research, and the Brontë-Bewick link would be a perfect example of that.

Special Collections had a copy of Jane Eyre: An Autobiography that was published by Harper & Brothers in 1848 as number 109 of its Library of Select Novels. But would it have Bewick’s book? Yes, indeed, a catalog search revealed! After warming up my pointer finger long enough to activate the fingerprint reader on the vault’s security system, I walked in the cool chamber, found the copy of History of British Birds: The Figures Engraved on Wood by T. Bewick, printed in Newcastle upon Tyne, England between 1797 and 1804, and excitedly whispered, “Bingo!”

Remembering how much fun it was to leaf through Bewick’s book, your beginning birder here was happy to find that the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library also has a copy of this edition. I paged through its two volumes on a recent visit and got reacquainted with this old friend.

Thomas Bewick (his name is pronounced bew-ick; think Buick automobile when you say it) was an Englishman who combined artistic talent with a late 18th-century curiosity about the natural world and a fondness for the picturesque. As apprentice to engraver Ralph Beilby, Bewick learned how to engrave on copper, silver and wood; he later became Beilby’s partner. Later, Bewick applied his skills to illustrating books, carving scenes on wood from which prints could be made. From illustrating editions of Aesop’s Fables, he progressed to A General History of Quadrupeds, published in 1790.

For the next seven years, Bewick toiled away on a book about British birds. Whether studying wild birds that he adopted as pets or as specimens that English country gentlemen shot during hunting expeditions, Bewick worked from life. Scrutinizing their every feature and expertly employing his woodcutting tools and techniques to capture them, he created delicate, lively portraits of birds that convey texture and shading, plumage and personality. Some woodcuts show the bird perched on a branch. Others place the bird in its habitat. Whatever the pose, Bewick’s work displays origiThe Golden-crested Wren, History of British Birds, by Thomas Bewick, Ohio Historical Society Archives/Librarynality and outstanding skill.

Bewick and Beilby collaborated on the first volume of the book, offering descriptions of land birds to complement the woodcuts. First, they shared details on their size, shape and distinctive features. Then, they covered habitat and song.

For example, the volume highlights the “crafty” Sparrow; the “solitary” Wryneck and Hoopoe; the Jay, with its “harsh, grating voice and restless disposition”; the Goldfinch, whose “melody of song, sagacity and docility of disposition, seem all united in this charming little bird….”; and the Golden-crested wren, a “curious little bird…very agile, and almost continually in motion, fluttering from branch to branch, creeping on all sides of the trees, clinging to them in every situation, and often hanging like the titmouse.”

Robin-Redbreast, History of British Birds, by Thomas Bewick, Ohio Historical Society Archives/LibraryWriting about the Robin-Redbreast (called Thomas Gierdet in Germany, Peter Ronsmad in Norway, and Tomi-Liden in Sweden – what a fun fact!), Bewick says, “…Its well-known familiarity has attracted the attention and secured the protection of men in all ages; it haunts the dwellings of the cottager, and partakes of his humble fare; when the cold grows severe, and snow covers the ground, it approaches the house, taps at the window with its bill, as if to entreat an asylum, which is always cheerfully granted, and with a simplicity the most delightful, hops round the house, picks up crumbs, and seems to make himself one of the family.”

The first volume was so successful that Bewick went solo in the second volume, concentrating on water birds.

The tiny vignettes that Bewick created at the end of each chapter are just as charming as his bird portraits. In these little tailpiece scenes, he takes a humorous look at familiar subjects from life, like a lad relaxing in the countryside while a pair of birds fly overhead, from volume one… Tailpiece scene, page 62, History of British Birds, by Thomas Bewick, Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library

and a man navigating the water by walking on stilts, from volume two. If you look closely in the background, you’ll spot a “stilted” spectator.

Tailpiece from volume 2, History of British Birds, by Thomas Bewick, Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library

To celebrate the 250th anniversary of Bewick’s birth in 2003, the city from which he hailed — Newcastle upon Tyne, England — commissioned Hilary Paynter, one of today’s leading wood engravers, to create a suite of wood engravings for its Metro stations.  Presented on enamel panels across the station’s platforms, the series, titled “From the Rivers to the Sea,” reflects the region’s landscape.

In 2007, British writer Jenny Uglow published Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick, the first full-length biography of this talented man. I snapped up a copy soon after it was published. Uglow introduces readers to Bewick at all stages of his life, from the tall and good-looking, but shy and serious, young man, to the popular artist, author and naturalist whom John James Audubon looked up during a visit to Britain in 1827. Recounting that opening scene of Jane Eyre, Uglow explains how Brontë’s fascination with Bewick began. When she was 12 years old, Brontë wanted to be an artist, so she pored over the engravings she saw in A History of British Birds.

After his death in 1828, Bewick was honored by having two birds named after him. In 1830, English naturalist William Yarrell named a white swan with a little yellow patch above its black bill a Bewick’s Swan. Bewick’s Wren, a grey-brown and white bird with a prominent white eyebrow and a long, white-tipped tail, was given its name by John James Audubon in honor of his friend.

Since my Special Collections days, I’ve checked out these other books by Jenny Uglow: A Little History of British Gardening; The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World; Hogarth: A Life and a World; Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories; and her latest release, The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine–Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary. And while reading The Newberry 125: Stories of Our Collection, I learned that the Newberry Library in Chicago owns 119 of Bewick’s engraved woodblocks. Turn to page 118 of the book to discover the history of the blocks and their Chicago connection.

Finally, here’s a special note to birders. If you have a copy of The Dictionary of American Bird Names, by Ernest A. Choate, the illustrations in it are from Bewick’s A History of British Birds.


This entry was posted in Art, Birds, Books, England, History, Libraries, Nature/Outdoors, Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society), Special Collections. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Happiness Is Having Thomas Bewick’s “History of British Birds” On Your Knee

  1. I have in my library a signed copy of Dr. Choate’s “The Dictionary of American Bird Names” personally given to me by the great man as a teenager. He and my father, Dr. Gilbert Master, led the Cape May Geographic Society in Cape May, New Jersey, for many years. I recall the many bird walks I took with him in Cape May in the early fall. I was always amazed by the depth and breadth of bird knowledge, history and etymology which he possessed and freely gave to his bird walkers. Although Dr. Choate attributes the bird images in his book to Bewick, I overlooked the reference completely despite many readings. Many thanks for this reference.
    Your devoted reader,
    Bernard Master

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