First published in 1790, Thomas Bewick’s Quadrupeds was the first real effort at a quality illustrated book, pioneering engravings on end-grain boxwood as opposed to the rather more slapdash woodcuts done on side-grain. The difference in quality is staggering, and whenever possible Bewick drew from life, even if it was dead and stuffed in the case of some of the more exotic specimens here!
majoring in homegrown species (there are a lot of dogs!) he does stray into the realms of the new and exotic, especially at the end of the book.(Click all images to enlarge)
Hot off the press were creatures from the Antipodes “discovered” only 20 years before. Not surprising then that names were not yet formalised, but here is something so new it doesn’t even have a name as yet!
However we now recognise it as the Duck-Billed Platypus, an exotic oddity even today! What on earth must it have seemed like back then?
If this were all Bewick did it would surely be enough, but scattered throughout the book are tiny tailpieces at the foot of the page or the end of the chapter. These usually depict everyday life around his home of Cherryburn near Newcastle upon Tyne, nearly all tell a story or make a moral point, and all are tiny! Here is one of my favourites…
Here we see our hero in the foreground, defecating merrily in a bush whilst smoking an undoubtedly stinky pipe, whilst the fair maiden holds her nose, offended at the stink, but presuming it is from the distant lime kiln. Quite large here, the original is no more than a couple of centimetres across – genius!
Bewick published a book on birds, also complete with vignettes, and many other works in his long career.
Visit The Bewick Society, and find out more about his craft at The Society of Wood Engravers