Prints charming; After a good clean-up, the brilliance of Thomas Bewick can be seen in a dozen printings from his original woodblocks. DAVID WHETSTONE reports on a special homage to the print-maker which has resulted in some great Christmas gifts.
Clean away the muck of centuries and it's surprising what you'll find - such as a skyline closely resembling early 19th-century newcastle in the illustration of a fable by the Greek storyteller aesop.
aesop died in about 564BC, some 500 years before the Romans built a fort beside a river to begin the city's history.
The fact that the illustrator was Thomas Bewick would explain the north east setting of aesop's story about Jupiter and the ass.
The master engraver was born at Cherryburn, in the Tyne Valley, so was showing what he knew. aesop's fables, of course, have stood the test of time.
Bewick was engraver, naturalist, illustrator and author. He is as revered today as he was for much of his life (1753 to 1828) which is why Cherryburn, in the village of Mickley, is now a popular visitor attraction run by the national Trust.
His work, too, is still loved and admired.
It was revealed in October that a series of 12 prints, in runs of 20 each, were to be released by the national Trust in time for Christmas.
They were to be made using Berwick's original hand-engraved wood blocks, some of which are more than 200 years old.
The blocks have been cleaned painstakingly by master printer Christopher Bacon, who works alongside his daughter at their printing workshop near Hexham. He explained that the cleaning process had enabled him to reveal detail that had been obscured by the accretion of black ink over many years.
"It seemed silly not to do the best we could if we were going to all that trouble," he said.
"But we are only showing what was there in the first place. Bewick was an engraver and didn't do the printing. He trusted that to nearby printers and publishers in newcastle and, depending on their quality, not all the detail came out.
"These limited printings have been produced like articles of fine art. It is a very different business to what Bewick would have known, but I hope what we have done today would have pleased TB.
"I just want to think that we have done the best we can."
It is worth noting that Bewick, in his memoirs, revealed he had never been happy with the reproduction of Jupiter and the ass, noting... "not so well printed as I expected and wished, the ink for such fine work being much too strong, black and thick".
While the prints are black and white, the effect is akin to the colours of an oil painting shining through after restoration.
Dr Peter Quinn, chairman of the newcastle-based Bewick Society, was delighted to see the prints as Turn to Page 22 From Page 21 their creator must have intended.
"The Jupiter and the Ass has a wonderful view of a distant city similar to Newcastle, which has surprised me as I had never noticed there was anything like that in the background before," he said.
"One of the things about these prints is that they have been produced to the highest quality, probably a higher quality than Bewick had even envisaged, and it is one of the joys of his blocks that we are still able to use them in this way.
"In Bewick's time these blocks would have been used several hundred times, but part of the appeal of these new limited printings is that Christopher Bacon has thoroughly and expertly cleaned them, which has allowed him to get the detail from the engravings that had been there originally but had not been realised in the printing in the past.
"In the Dog and Moon Christopher has been able to print the dog dark and the moon silvery grey, which in the original books was not possible, and each of the birds comes into their own.
"I know people who have looked closely at the Mountain Sparrow many times and not noticed before that there is a man hanging from a gibbet in the background.
"But it shows the remarkable clarity that Christopher has been able to achieve and which you only register in a fine print."
The prints, 240 in all, show Bewick's brilliance but also his sense of humour.
Why else would he have turned his artistic skills to a little engraving of a dog with worms? It was originally a tail-piece to the Aesop fable of The Bull and the Goat and you might think it's the perfect thing to buy for someone you love or admire.
The 12 chosen prints were first seen as illustrations in landmark volumes including A General History of Quadrupeds, first published in 1790, A History of British Birds (1797) and Bewick's The Fables of Aesop and Others, which came out in 1818.
The precious blocks were engraved by Bewick from boxwood in the late 18th Century and are usually kept in a humidity-controlled strongroom.
The chosen dozen were loaned to Christopher so that he could clean them and make the new series of prints, fresh offthe press just as they would have been - if not a little better - back in Bewick's day.
The art works, as they are now seen, were produced using modern French paper called Lana 1590 which is said to ensure a long-lasting and high quality result.
Kay Owen, the National Trust's visitor and site operations manager for Cherryburn, said: "We are delighted we have been able to use these wooden blocks to bring history to life by showing how Bewick created his remarkable prints and to give people the chance to own one.
"With Christmas approaching they would make wonderful presents for art and nature lovers, or anyone who has an appreciation of the remarkable legacy left behind by one of the North East's greatest sons."
Among the available prints are delicately rendered portraits of a platypus, a weasel and a tenrec from A General History of Quadrupeds.
According to an online search, the tenrec can be found on Madagascar and in parts of the African mainland. Berwick noted: "They are generally very fat, and the 'Indians' eat their flesh, though it is reckoned insipid and stringy."
You might also go for Bewick's depiction of a man clutching a weasel found raiding his pantry. It comes from Select Fables (1820) and it illustrates a debate about whether the animal should be spared.
Sadly for the weasel, it ends up on the losing end of the argument, having been likened to a self-serving thief, a hangman and a scurrilous writer (back in the day when journalism was a risky calling).
The platypus appears in the quadrupeds book but Berwick wasn't sure, remarking that "it appears to possess a threefold nature, that of a fish, a bird and a quadruped".
The prints, which cost PS50 each unframed, are on sale at the National Trust's property at Housesteads, on Hadrian's Wall (tel. 01434 344525 between 10am and 4pm). If they prove popular, further printings may be made offdifferent blocks held in the Bewick collection.
The Tenrec -A General History of Quadrupeds (1790)
The Walrus -A General History of Quadrupeds (1790)
The Anthus Ricardi -Addenda to History of British Birds, Vol. 1, Land Birds (1797)
The Whimbrel -History of British Birds, Vol. 2, Water Birds (1804)
The Mountain Sparrow -History of British Birds, Vol. 1, Land Birds (1797)
Master printer Christopher Bacon at work on the Bewick collection
Dogs, stile and moon -Fables of Aesop (1818)
Jupiter and the Ass -Fables of Aesop (1818 and 1823)
Man and Weasel -from Select Fables (1820)
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|Publication:||The Journal (Newcastle, England)|
|Date:||Dec 9, 2015|
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