[Thackeray created the decorated initial “T” for Vanity Fair. —  George P. Landow]

Illuminated initial T

he Art of Engraving on Wood in England, though never practically lost from the period of its first introduction about the end of the fifteenth century, was in a very languid condition at the time when Thomas Bewick was apprenticed in Newcastle in 1767. Professors of the Art did then certainly practise in London, if not also in other places in England, but their productions were of a very feeble kind, though they served to keep alive the traditional methods of this branch of Engraving.

In other countries at the same date Engraving on Wood was, as also in England, discarded, in the case of important work, for the practice of engraving on copper. France appears to have been the only nation whose wood engravers exhibited works of merit during the interval between the end of the sixteenth century and Bewick's time, but even the engravings of Nicholas Le Sueur and John Michael Papillon are good only in the sense of being the best of their age. For the finest early examples of works of Art multiplied by having been cut on wood we have to look to the German Schools; to the masterpieces of Albert Dürer, Louis Cranach, Hans Holbein, and other artists of the country where such works were first produced in Europe.

1title1 1title1

Two of Albrecht Dürer's woodcuts: Left: Man of Sorrows with Hands Raised. Right: The Knight, Death, and the Devil. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

The works of Thomas Bewick are of quite a different class. They, too, as designs, are of the supremest quality. They were not only conceived and drawn, but were also engraved by him. As the productions of a thorough artist, each may be looked on as exemplifying the legitimate condition of the Art of Engraving on Wood, as opposed to plate engraving, and as different from simple wood cutting. A wood engraving ought, as a matter of course, to be a work which cannot be given in a better way by any other method for the purpose for which it is intended to be employed. The greatest use of wood engraving is to have it worked together with type for letterpress printing, and this being what no other method of artistic production could, until very recent years, readily be adapted to, therefore the first consideration is the fulfilment of this condition. It is quite possible so to engrave a wood block that it cannot satisfactorily be printed from.

The most artistic work is what is termed "white-line" engraving, obtained by cutting the lines forming the picture into the wood. Facsimile engraving, or as it is sometimes, though perhaps not quite correctly, called, "black-line" work, is produced by cutting away the wood so as to leave the lines drawn by the artist untouched—cross-hatched or otherwise—a style now much more extensively practised than the former. For this less freedom can be allowed than for the other, as the engraver or cutter must carefully, almost servilely, avoid the artist's pencil strokes, and show his skill (and that sometimes he does admirably) by trained hand work only, as the head can scarcely enter into the labour. At the same time it is to be observed that it is possible to combine the two methods, as is done in many modern wood engravings. [xi-xiii]

Thomas Bewick's role in the history of wood-engraving

Until his time it had been content to show outlines wanting the finish of a shaded drawing, or prints usually occupying, amongst copper-plate illustrations, a place of a very inferior kind. Before Bewick's day, also, there had been little attempt at transcript from nature, and conventionality reigned supreme.

The change from conventionality to natural forms was one that could not have been brought about except by one possessing the royal stamp of genius. And with this Thomas Bewick was certainly endowed. He also had the humbler, yet quite as necessary, gift of perseverance; and together these led him to approach nature in simplicity, to receive her lessons with faithfulness, and to depict what he saw with unfailing certainty and loveliness. Thus it was with the Figures in the Birds and Quadrupeds. With the Vignettes for these works and in the Fables it was somewhat different, for here his grave humour as well as his glorious veracity displayed itself, and showed another side of the artist-engraver's powerful mind.

When Bewick began his labours artistic Wood Engraving did not exist. He led it from mechanism to untrammelled and enduring excellence. It is perfectly probable the change would have come by other means, if not through his exertions. . . . Reforms and changes in all things must come, but because of this certainty we are none the less to honour the immediate instruments who stimulate to new or more vigorous life. Bewick may only have been the inevitable exponent of a reformation, but none the less are we to bow before the heaven- born gift of ability to carry that reformation to a successful issue. [xiii-xiv]

On a portrait published in 1815 Bewick is called the "Restorer of the Art of Wood Engraving," but, as has been frequently pointed out since, if Bewick was the restorer, how could he have found ready employment on the art at more than one workshop? It is of course perfectly obvious that however much Bewick may have done for wood engraving, he had no claim to be called its restorer in the sense of its re-finder. He had every title to be styled the reviver or recoverer of the art from neglect, but he had no right, nor did he personally pretend to have any, to be entitled the restorer of wood engraving in the sense of being its re-discoverer. [59]

Bewick's double-pointed graver

It was for the illustrations of these books that Bewick employed the double- pointed graver of his own making, so as to produce a clear line at one effort. The incident is related by G. C. Atkinson in his sketch of Bewick, published shortly after the artist's death:—"Bewick thought of making a chisel with two points, which being immovable would not fail to produce a line of equal thickness. There was a difficulty — no one could make him a tool sufficiently fine; here, however, his ingenuity again befriended him, for he covered the steel with a coat of etching-ground, and by the application of an acid easily procured a cavity of the requisite form, and found the tool answer every expectation. From this time he devoted himself more exclusively to wood engraving : his success in cutting the figures for Dr. Hutton, and their easiness of execution when compared to the heavy, laborious work he had been before engaged in on metals, gave a bias to his inclinations which led him almost entirely to relinquish the other branches of the art in favour of wood engraving." Several tools such as those described were among the collection at the Bewick Exhibition in Bond Street in 1880. It is a curious fact, however, that modern engravers have almost entirely given up using such implements, although at one time they were pretty extensively employed. (26) . . .


Thomson, David Croal. The Life and Works of Thomas Bewick being an Account of His Career and Acivements in Art with a Notice of the Works of John Bewick. London: The Art-Journal, 1882. Smithsonian Libraries site. Web. 19 September 2014.

Last modified 20 September 2014