A General History of Quadrupeds

2.    A General History of Quadrupeds

The Stag, or Red-Deer, c. 1790, wood engraving,

Iain Bain has documented how the idea of a publication on quadrupeds was first expressed by Bewick as early as 1781. Bewick stated in his Memoir that his real motivation for producing works on natural history stemmed from his displeasure, as a school boy, with illustrations in childrenís books. When he suggested to his partner, Ralph Beilby, that they put together an illustrated book, he recalled

The extreme interest I had always felt in the hope of administering to the pleasures & amusement of youth & judging from the feelings I had experienced myself that they would be affected in the same way as I had been, this whetted me up & stimulated me to proceed—in this, my only reward besides, was the great pleasure I felt in imitating nature—

The initial intention seems to have been the publication of a picture book, such as the Three Hundred Animals which had appeared in many editions during the second half of the 18th century. While Beilby had no doubt that Bewick would be able to produce the illustrations, the partners were more cautious about the risks of the enterprise and its cost. The publication of books was, after all, beyond the scope of their business as general engravers.

They consulted their friend Solomon Hodgson, a bookseller and the editor of the Newcastle Chronicle, who was most enthusiastic about the proposed work when he saw some of the figures Bewick had "done from nature, or from memory." But he "ardently insisted" upon their producing a book "of superior character" to that originally envisaged. Beilby and Bewick agreed with this suggestion, and they offered Hodgson a third share in the project, "free from any expense for the cuts," and they embarked on the enterprise of producing A General History of Quadrupeds.

That Bewick chose to illustrate the work with wood engraving, apart from his great affinity for the medium, was largely due to the fact that the wood block of a wood engraving (cut on the end grain of a hard wood such as boxwood) could be printed simultaneously with the letterpress. This meant that an illustration could appear on the same page as its related text. The undertaking of the publication for Bewick meant the execution of 200 figures of quadrupeds, as well as the many vignettes or tail-pieces. By the time of the second edition, there were 212 figures of animals and 224 by the time of the fourth edition in 1800. The vignettes in subsequent editions also increased in number and were much improved from those appearing in the earliest editions.

The Arabian Camel or Dromedary, c. 1785, wood engraving,

By his own account, Bewick began to engrave the blocks in November of 1785, with the figure of the Dromedary, followed within weeks by that of the Camel, the Elephant, the Mufflon-Zebu, and the Zebra. The excellence of Bewick's work, and the fact that the quadruped was often depicted in its natural environment, made the book a very lively one. Nevertheless, many of Bewick's illustrations were not drawn from life and were copied from the plates in Dr. Smellie's nine volume edition (1781-85) of Buffon's Histoire Naturelle, which had been published in Edinburgh between 1781 and 1785, and also referred to the work of other naturalists. Accessibility in Newcastle to living examples of some of the more exotic quadrupeds was very limited. The odd travelling menagerie might have included a lion or a tiger, and these Bewick did draw from life. But many of the animals not native to Britain, such as those discovered and reported as a result of Captain Cook's three expeditions (1768-1779) for instance, were drawn from second-hand information and illustration.

Ralph Beilby set out to write the description of the animals although his knowledge of natural history was somewhat lacking. Other natural history books of the time were obtained to assist him in the endeavour, and Bewick often furnished him "in many conversations & & written memorandums" with his own extensive knowledge of animals, and "blotting out" from Beilbyís manuscript "what was not truth." Beilby would indeed attempt to claim authorship of the work but their mutual friend and partner, who seemed to provide editorial services in the enterprise, "seeing this, without saying a word, stroked [Beilbyís] name out with a pen."

Both partners worked on this project outside of regular business hours. Bewick produced the greater part of the engravings "after the days work of the shop was over," and often by candlelight. His Memoir mentions two clergyman friends who often visited Bewick while he worked on these engravings. While occupied with engraving, Bewick could still engage in discussions of various matters. Such evenings often ended when they adjourned to a public house for a tankard of ale.

A General History of Quadrupeds was finally published in 1790. The success of the work was immediate, and the work was met with a "glut of praises." The book sold rapidly and editions appeared 1791 and in 1792.

A General History of Quadrupeds was really the result of an increasing popular interest in natural history towards the end of the 18th century. Evidence of this interest can be seen by other notable publications at the time such as Gilbert Whiteís Natural History of Selborne (1789) and the wonderful works of Thomas Pennant, whose own General History of Quadrupeds in two volumes, illustrated with fine copper engravings, had first appeared in 1781.

Select an edition to access information on the edition and its wood engravings.

1790 1791 1792 1800
1807 1811 1820 1824

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