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Thomas Bewick - Of Swans and Hard Work


I have found from experience that the Mute swans on the Itchen are fierce, loyal and heart-liftingly beautiful. The parents of two cygnets have been faithfully caring for them for months, guiding them up and down the stream to feed, guarding them, watching them grow, and waiting for their soft grey plumage to turn a dazzling white - several white feathers finally appeared in October - before sending them off into new waters. This is not a completely idyllic life.

The swans feel it incumbent to see off any dog coming too close to the riverbank with indignant hissing from orange red bills, and occasionally a parent swan rises to stand like an angel on the stream.

Taking six months to raise their young and teach them the way of the waters, the swans clearly communicate to their young how to raise children. It all seems to work very well.

Thomas Bewick, who was born in 1753 in Northumberland, was a poor scholar, but a great observer of nature. I imagine him playing hookey from school and wandering the woods and fields and riverbanks with pencil and paper in his pocket. By the time he was fourteen, it was clear he could draw, and rather than wasting his time with further classes, he was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, an engraver.

Thomas had found his stream in life as readily as a swan. Before very long he was engraving for a doctor and making a technical breakthrough in his craft.

"Unlike his predecessors, Thomas would carve in harder woods, notably box wood, against the grain, using fine tools normally favoured by metal engravers. This proved to be far superior, and has been the dominant method used since. Works in this technique for which he became well known included engravings for Oliver Goldsmith's Traveller and Deserted Village, for Thomas Parnell's Hermit, for William Somervile's Chase" (Wiki).

Thomas became Beilby's partner, and continued to ramble through the country. His dream was to create illustrations of all the world's animals and Britain's birds. "A General History of Quadrupeds appeared in 1790 and Bewick's great achievement, that with which his name is inseparably associated, the History of British Birds, in two volumes, was published from 1797-1804".


Barn Owl

He charmingly describes - details on this fine Bewick website - how he began his first volume on British birds. He realized that drawing from life was far superior to drawing from a dead specimen, and he let his friends know what he was up to. Word got out, and he was inundated with suggestions from British enthusiasts who in their many thousands -just as they do today - loved birds and wanted to talk about them.

Thomas famously illustrated Aesop's Fables. He really does like animals. One of his illustrations of a mistreated horse looks like the inspiration for Black Beauty.

He used his fingerprint as a form of signature, perhaps because he was one of the first to recognize the uniqueness of the human fingerprint.

Like the swans, Thomas Bewick was attentive to the young. He had many pupils, and a number of his fledglings became famous.

He pioneered, 'white-line' engraving, a dark-to-light technique where the lines to remain white are cut out of the woodblock. So it seems fitting that Bewick's Swan, a white winter visitor to eastern England should have been named in his honour.

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