Early Works by Thomas Bewick

birds and beasts

The early work in wood engraving by Thomas Bewick consists principally of works done from the end of his apprenticeship with Ralph Beilby (1774) and the first engravings done for the natural history publications (1785). Bewick had first engraved on wood in about 1768, but the first significant works were illustrations for various Fables. The first of these were the Select Fables published by T. Saint in Newcastle in 1776. This was followed in 1779 by Saint's publication of Fables by the late Mr Gay, and Tommy Trip's History of Beasts and Birds. In 1784, Saint published the Select Fables incorporating designs from the 1776 work, with some engravings by Thomas Bewick's brother John who had worked as an apprentice from 1777 to 1782.

hunstman and old hound

The Huntsman and the Old Hound, c. 1775
wood engraving

One of these early works, The Huntsman and the Old Hound, had been entered in a competition in 1775 and Bewick was awarded a premium of seven guineas from the Society of Arts. The engraving appeared in Saint's 1779 publication of Gay's Fables. The decorative border is very typical of the Rococo period. All of the Fable illustrations made use of such decorative borders.

crow and pitcherBewick's early engravings illustrating fables are also interesting in that such subjects would provide inspiration for many of the celebrated vignettes illustrating his better known books relating to natural history. For instance, the illustration of the Fable, The Crow and the Pitcher is also a vignette in the first edition (1797) of the History of British Birds (Volume 1: Land Birds).Crow and UrnThe absence of the decorative border in the vignette allows Bewick to place the subject within a naturalistic setting—if, indeed, this particular vignette is by Bewick! The subjects of the fables were no doubt assigned to the apprentices on more than one occasion.

AsleepBear and Two FriendsOne final example of this kind of borrowing from the earlier Fable illustrations is an unattributed vignette that appears in first (1790) edition of the General History of the Quadrupeds. The origin of this vignette is from the illustration to the Fable The Bear and the Two Friends (Select Fables, 1784, Part I -Fable XXV).

It is hoped that at some future date our Bewick web site will include all of the early illustrations to the Fables, although none of these illustrations are found in the Edmonton Art Gallery's collection. The Fables continued to inspire Bewick throughout his life and are important to the understanding and interpretation of his work. As late as 1818, he would return to the Fables and publish a work of this nature himself: Aesop's Fables.

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