I have been reading a book (the biography by Jenny Uglow) about this guy Thomas Bewick, who lived from 1753 – 1828 in northern England. He did an apprenticeship in engraving starting at age 14, and became over his lifetime of work, renowned as a wood engraver. That is, he carved images into wood blocks which were then used in the printing process to make illustrations for books. He did all sorts of pictures – and not only for books – over his lifetime, ran a business as well as training dozens of other young men in the trade also.
He had a lifelong interest in nature, and produced what seem to have been fantastic books of animals and especially birds. It’s taken me a while to warm to him but the more I read and look at the pictures in this biography, the more appealing Thomas becomes. He was obviously talented – but it is the talent that comes of years of practice. He was obviously good at business – but he was also so messy and disorganised and sometimes he made big mistakes and offended people around him. He was contradictory and perverse – generous and nit-picking, smart and ridiculous, well-meaning and misguided. I find him really endearing and he reminds me of the mixture in all of us, and what a relief it is to know that his wonderful talent wasn’t a perfect thing. He was very human as well.
Anyway, his pictures are amazing. He was working before photography, so people didn’t have other ways of seeing illustrations of animals except as they were produced by artists and craftspeople like himself. His books were very influential, and the skill he had in carving and producing such intricate work is obviously amazing. This is a post where clicking on the pictures will give you a closer look at the fineness of his work.