To Be - or Not - a Bewick

Presumably, this small, 18th-century wood engraving represents a teacher and his pupils. It endeavors, naively, to depict its subject from the children's viewpoint. Their regimentation and obeisance toward the large authoritarian figure is the main event. Today it is a case of inconclusive research.

Reproduced as an untitled tailpiece in "English Children's Books" (1954), by Percy Muir, it is described as "from" a woodcut "by Thomas Bewick." But it seems one shouldn't believe everything one reads.

Bewick (1753-1828) was a prolific, skilled wood engraver in Newcastle best known for his small, accurate glimpses of nature. He is often credited with the invention of the wood engraving, as differentiated from the woodcut. He worked on the end grain of a boxwood block with engraving tools instead of on a plank with a knife, producing fine white lines rather than black ones.

A close look at wood-engravings authentically by (or attributed to) Bewick - the field seems fraught with questions - convinced me that Mr. Muir must have gotten his facts wrong. Nothing by Bewick is like this image.

Bewick expert Iain Bain confirms: "Definitely not Bewick."

The square format, with circular frame, is inconsistent with Bewick's usual use of rectangular-format blocks and his preference for oval interior frames. Above all, his engravings are cut with finesse and a sophistication lacking in this example.

Bewick's brother John occasionally depicted schoolchildren, but their dress belongs to a later period, and his style is finer. When Thomas depicted children, they were generally outdoors, playing or fishing. His memoirs describe his own school days with distaste - another argument against his choosing this theme.

The best thing to do with this image, in the absence of further proof, is relegate it to the respected ranks of "Anon."

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