Thomas Bewick was born at Cherryburn House, Eltringham, Northumberland in August of 1753, the eldest of eight children. Early on he demonstrated a talent for art by drawing on the hearthstones of his family home and filling the margins of his school books with pencil sketches of the surrounding flora and fauna. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to Newcastle engraver Ralph Beilby. Most of the work of the shop was in metal engraving, but occasionally there was work in woodcuts, especially for children's books. Bewick worked primarily in metal at the shop during the day, but he enjoyed working in wood and spent long evenings at home making woodcuts and perfecting his technique.
Traditionally, in woodcutting it is the white areas that are cut away leaving the black lines on the surface to take the ink. Bewick, however, imagined the image in white as he engraved freehand, rather than following a previously drawn image on the block. This 'white line technique', combined with Bewick's eye for natural details formed the basis of his mastery. He developed a method of slightly lowering the surface of some areas of the block to achieve more of a grey tone, giving the effect of distance, and thereby transforming a simple art into the most popular form of graphic art in Britain until the introduction of photography in the mid-19th century.
Bewick's technique also involved engraving the end, rather than the length, of the close-grained boxwood. It was a more delicate and intricate technique and could achieve greater detail than metal engraving. Large boxwood blocks were expensive so he used small blocks, rarely more than four inches across. These small images, often only an inch and a half square or two by three inches, are packed with immense detail.
They delineate rural scenes often with animals or birds surrounded by a lively landscape. It is in these detailed landscapes found in Bewick's "tailpieces" (vignettes used to fill the blank spaces at the end of a page), that his well known sense of humor and social conscience emerge.
Bewick's reputation was established in the last decade of the 18th century with the publication of A General History of Quadrupeds and A History of British Birds. Both of these works drew on Bewick's love of nature, acquired as a child in his northern English countryside. He had been producing wood engravings for some years before the publication of Quadrupeds and British Birds. It was not until the appearance of these works, and particularly the latter, that his engravings caught the eye of the public and began the woodcut revival that was to last throughout the 19th century, completely supplanting copperplate engraving as the chief medium of book illustration.
When John James Audubon came to England in 1827, seeking paying subscribers for his series of folios of American bird paintings, he traveled to Newcastle to pay his respects to the aging Thomas Bewick. Audubon described Bewick thusly, "My opinion of this remarkable man is, that he was purely a son of nature, to whom alone he owed nearly all that characterized him as an artist and a man. Warm in his affections, of deep feeling, and possessed of a vigorous imagination, with correct and penetrating observation, he needed little extraneous aid to make him what he became, the first engraver on wood that England has produced. Look at his tailpieces, reader, and say if you ever saw so much life represented before..." Jenny Uglow, Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 309.
In the Ingalls Library's copy of British Birds Volume 1, there is an inscription that reads "Mr. Bewick was an eccentric character. He used to sleep with his head on the sill of the chamber window, for the benefit of the air." This inscription is believed to have been written by Mr. William Allan (1796 - 1879) of Blackwell Grange, Darlington, relative and subsequent heir to Mr. George Allan (1736 - 1800). George Allan, a noted antiquary and natural history collector, was a contemporary of Thomas Bewick. It is known that Bewick stayed at Blackwell Grange around 1797 and even borrowed some books (possibly Thomas Pennant's British Zoology) from the estate.