From 1790, when the first edition of The General History of Quadrupeds was published, the little vignettes which appeared on title pages and at the end of descriptions of specific quadrupeds charmed book buyers and lovers of printed images. For Bewick, who wanted his books to instruct young people, these page ornaments also had their place in his didactic purpose.
My writings were intended chiefly for youth; and the more readily to allure their pliable, though discursive, attention to the Great Truths of Creation, I illustrated them by figures delineated with all the fidelity and animation I was able to impart to mere woodcuts without colour; and as instruction is of little avail without constant cheerfulness and occasional amusement, I interspersed the more serious studies with Tale-pieces of gaiety and humour; yet even in these seldom without an endeavour to illustrate some truth, or point some moral.
Many of the vignettes offer a glimpse into life in the British countryside toward the end of the Eighteenth century. These 'tale-pieces,' as Bewick himself described them, were undoubtedly derived from the genre of illustrated animal fables with which he was very familiar. The appearance of Bewick's natural history publications span the years 1790 to 1804, roughly the time of the French Revolutionary period and the rise of Napoleon. During that period, Britain was often in a state of war against France. It was also a time when the elegance and frivolity of the Rococo period were being swept away by a new rationalism and the emergence of the sciences, including those dealing with natural history. While such intellectual developments were also the subject of publications all over Europe and lively conversations even in provincial centres such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in which Bewick took an active interest, the life of the countryside which Bewick had experienced first hand was remembered affectionately, and Bewick's readers shared in his delight through the vignettes.
More than 330 of these vignettes were published by Iain Bain in a book for Scolar Press in 1979, most of them drawn from Bewick's publications on natural history. In this work, Bain also published some interpretations which had been noted by Jane Bewick, the engraver's eldest daughter.
The orderly presentation of Bewick's vignettes is a near impossibility. First, not all of them can be attributed to Bewick himself by any means. Second, a thematic presentation makes little sense in the context of their original publication. While some are linked to natural history subjects, others are illustrations of incidents or situations which have more to do with social history, and still other are simple decorations. Third, a strict chronological presentation is impossible.
In the information on each vignette, mention is made of the contribution of Bewick or his apprentices as well as information on publication in specific editions of Bewick's works.