Bewick made engravings take flight

I would like to have been a fly on the wall when James Audubon paid Thomas Bewick a couple of visits in 1827. Audubon was in Britain, looking for sponsors for his "Birds of America." Fortunately, the American naturalist-artist wrote a perceptive, amusing description of his encounter with the English naturalist-artist in his home and workshop.

Audubon described Bewick as "warm in his affections, of deep feeling, and possessed of a vigorous imagination, with correct and penetrating observation."

He added that Bewick should be "considered in the art of engraving on wood what Linnaeus will ever be in natural history, though not the founder, yet the enlightened improver and illustrious promoter."

Presumably, Audubon had seen Bewick's work before they met. Bewick, wanting to appeal particularly to young people interested in animals, had made wood engravings for "A History of Quadrupeds" and "A History of British Birds." The cut shown here, enlarged from the original, is from the latter.

Bewick's own engaging memoirs record his childhood love of birds, which never left him. And he tells how the "severe confinement and application" required to complete the illustrations was alleviated "by the extreme pleasure [he] felt in depicturing ... these beautiful and very interesting ... aireal wanderers...."

Given the minuscule dimensions of the end-grain woodblocks he engraved, he apparently worked freely and inventively, referring to drawings and watercolors made directly from his specimens. Every incision he made would appear, in the print, as a white line cut out of a black surface. He varied his marks to convey anything from scintillating lights and shadows to subtle textures and substances.

Even color is suggested by strong blacks and whites and silvery distances.

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