Nigel Tattersfield. Thomas Bewick: The Complete Illustrative Work.
With the publication of his magisterial multi-volume work about Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), Nigel Tattersfield has cemented his reputation as a Bewick scholar par excellence. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could know more about the famed wood engraver, but Tattersfield gives credit where credit is due; his acknowledgements pay tribute to lain Bain, the "doyen of Bewick scholars," for "indulging and encouraging" his research, and taking responsibility for the publication's design, layout, and typography. Tapping into an enormous wealth of research material from two archives, Tattersfield uncovers a wealth of biographical and bibliographical details that are new to Bewick scholarship.
The first volume of this handsome cloth-bound set offers a thorough biographical treatment of Bewick, his partner Ralph Beilby, and their many apprentices. It covers the period when Beilby ran the shop on his own from about 1765 to 1767, the period of Bewick's apprenticeship and partnership with Beilby from 1767 to 1797, the years when Bewick operated the business from 1798 to 1812, the lengthy partnership with Bewick's son Robert from 1812 to 1825, and the period from 1825 to 1849 when Robert managed the business himself.
The text is compulsively readable and informative because Tattersfield tells the story of life in the workshop with considerable insight and eloquence. He draws memorable portraits of the engravers who against all odds have given us a rich tradition of wood block illustration. We learn that in the early days of the workshop, however, little effort was focused on the cutting of wood blocks for the illustration of books. The range of decorative engraving work was considerable and prolific; customers paid for all variety of engraving commissions, including clock faces, sword blades, visiting cards, tableware, rings, buttons, buckles, dog collars, thimbles, and so on. The shop was truly a shining example of the century's "democratization of consumption."
That Beilby and Bewick succeeded in establishing an engraving business of remarkable diversity had much to do with Bewick's talent as an accomplished engraver across all areas, be it wood, copper, silver, gold, or brass. By the time A General History of Quadrupeds (1790) was published to unanimous acclaim, the income of the workshop had exceeded all expectations. Tattersfield takes considerable care to explain that while the Beilby-Bewick workshop enjoyed great success as a general engraving workshop, the sheer volume of engraving work could not be handled effectively without the contribution of apprentices and journeymen. Tattersfield paints a vibrant picture of this colourful cast of characters, vividly recreating the hustle and bustle of workshop activity, and the particular ways in which they gladdened or disappointed their demanding masters. To wit, John Laws represented the "ideal apprentice" because he served his time "without a murmur" and excelled at the engraving of silver with the finest of delicately incised decorative "hair" work. When compared with Robert Johnston, who served a ten-year apprenticeship, culminating in Bewick's outburst that "he showed not a particle of gratitude," Laws and his peers appear utterly angelic.
Beilby and Bewick eventually parted ways, and not surprisingly, buying out Beilby brought about a litany of problems for Bewick as he took on sole proprietorship without sufficient human capital. In chronicling these difficulties, Tattersfield is especially adept at describing the astonishing history of how Bewick trained and managed the second generation of apprentices from 1804 onwards. The appendix includes a useful chart that documents the apprentices who served in the Beilby-Bewick workshop, which includes the dates of their indentures and probationary periods. At the close of the first volume, Tattersfield makes it abundantly clear that Bewick raised the standard and quality of woodcuts to such heights that wood engravers finally had a high standard to emulate.
The second volume comprises the complete descriptive catalogue of illustrative work, which includes primary and secondary works, and the principal larger prints. It is arranged in seven parts that do a remarkable job of identifying and describing illustrations executed in the Beilby-Bewick workshop. The catalogue entries are thoroughly researched and a delight to read, and the majority are accompanied by illustrative examples. After reading the entries in the primary works section, it becomes clear that Tattersfield has done a great service to Bewick scholarship. For example, the first entries describe the many editions of A General History of Quadrupeds, which clarify many essential bibliographic details, including the number of copies printed for each edition, page size, format, paper issues, and watermarks. The entries are further enriched with information about advertisements, material costs, and retail prices, which offers a clear picture of the profitability of the business. The entries also show remarkably long print runs for reprints of primary works including the Quadrupeds, A History of British Birds, and The Fables of Aesop, and in one case we see that Bewick "took the bold step of tripling the print run"--1500 of the demy sets of British Birds (1809) instead of 500 in the previous edition. While this information does not allow us to measure the pace at which these books were sold, there is plenty of evidence to show that Bewick had many eager customers. What emerges from these detailed entries, moreover, is a pattern of success that begs further historical and critical interpretation. This marvellous catalogue will certainly improve our understanding of the history of Bewick's illustrative work, which is an excellent foundation for investigation into more complex bibliographical questions about his oeuvre such as the commodification of engraved wood blocks and metal plates.
Volume 3 comprises the notes, references, and indexes to volumes 2 and 3- By the time I had an opportunity to thumb through this, the thinnest of the three volumes, I felt convinced that Tattersfield had achieved something truly impressive in Bewick scholarship. In whatever way we use these splendid volumes, it is clear that they should be the starting point for any investigation about the illustrious artist, his illustrative work, and the fascinating complexities of his business.
University of Alberta
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|Publication:||Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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