Friday, July 10, 2009

Bewick’s Tailpieces

One of Newcastle's best known artists is Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). He was a wood engraver and an early pioneer and innovator of book illustration.

One of Bewick's specialties was the tailpiece, a small spot illustration filling the empty space at the end of a chapter. The Laing Art Gallery has an exhibit of these works, which they call "tale-pieces" because many of them tell a witty story or teach a moral lesson.

This one, which is reality only about two inches across, shows an old woman chasing geese. This kind of ornamental design frequently was surrounded by leaves and foliage. For that reason they came to be known as a vignettes, from the French word "vigne" meaning "vine."
The Laing Art Gallery exhibit will be shown through 18 October 2009.

Wikipedia on Thomas Bewick.


Anonymous said...

Cool post. The link "exhibit of these works" doesnt seem to be working though.

eric said...

were these wood carving blocks in reality only two inches by two inches? that is an amazing amount of detail to put into somthing that size, that cant be right, i would guess more like 4x4 minimum?

Steve said...


I'm thinking the 2 inches square is right. Think how much detail is packed into the portraits on paper money or stamps. Though engraved in metal, the tools and process to create those are similar to what Bewick did.

I have the good fortune of being a friend of Jim Horton, the founder of the Wood Engravers Network. Jim does wood engraving himself and has collected many blocks from past centuries. It's stunning how much detail can be incised into a the end-grain of a small block of rock maple or boxwood. Wood engravers typically wear Opti-Visors or use a magnification lens positioned over their work. I've tried a little engraving and it's demanding, unforgiving work. Knowing how to keep the tools sharp is a major necessity of the art. It's also hypnotic work as your world is reduced to the tiny field of vision available through the lens.

England still has many fine wood engravers. In this country, Barry Moser is probably held in the highest regard. Ten years ago he published a King James edition of the Bible with 229 densely detailed engravings that are a showcase of the range of tones that can be achieved entirely with black and white.

Every wood engraver working today probably cites Thomas Bewick as the seminal source of the medium. I'd love to see the Laing exhibit!

eric said...

i'm blown away to think that detail is in 2x2?!!

Roberto said...

Barry Moser is fantastic! We have his Bible and it is absolutely exquisite. (I am looking forward to adding R. Crumb's edition to my collection;) Barry has also done 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', and I believe 'Through the looking Glass' as well.
Thanks for the info on Jim Horton.-RQ

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Swashbuckle--hopefully the link is fixed now. I also fixed an incorrect date on his birthday.

I neglected to mention that Bewick (pronounced 'Buick') was also a leading ornithologist in his day, and wrote groundbreaking books on British birds and on quadrupeds. Audubon recollected meeting him, and was completely amazed at the skill and concentration involved in the engraving work.

The pieces really are tiny, not much bigger than a postage stamp. I didn't appreciate them until I put on my reading glasses and picked up one of the magnifying lenses that are provided with the exhibition.

Steve said...

Another phenomenal wood engraver is Richard Wagener. Check out his work at:

The images on the screen are probably actual size. I have a print from his Tibet series. It measures 2 x 3 inches. He is a master of line and tone.

Making A Mark said...

James - you might be interested in my blog post about Bewick Thomas Bewick - wood engraver and naturalist

I find him absolutely fascinating and got so interested in him that I ended up creating an information site about him too - with lots and lots more links! See Thomas Bewick - Resources for Art Lovers