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July 25-31, 2007

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'Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick'

Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick
(By Jenny Uglow; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 458 pages; $30 cloth)

Americans think of Audubon as the progenitor of today's bird-watching legions. But before his large folio renderings appeared, a wood engraver in England helped nurture the public's interest in nature. Thomas Bewick (1753–1828), who was born in the north of England, grew up outdoors. As Jenny Uglow writes in Nature's Engraver, "As a boy, [he] was down by the river from spring until autumn frost and often in the winter snow." Apprenticed to an engraving shop in Newcastle upon Tyne, Bewick recorded his childhood adventures in small woodcut vignettes that are "lyrics without words, songs on wood." Bewick, with his collaborator Ralph Beilby, embarked on A General History of Quadrupeds, with detailed woodcuts of exemplary beasts accompanied by text geared to the lay reader. Even more successful was A History of British Birds, full of lively avian species, showing their markings and evoking their personalities. The book made Bewick's name, and admirers often mailed him avian samples—living and stuffed. As portrayed by Uglow (who also wrote a biography of Hogarth), Bewick comes across as an unusually admirable artist. Although he was prone to hotheaded outbursts, he railed against animal abuse, decried the the oppressive enclosure laws—and never stopped producing charming engravings, which are copiously spread through the book.

Review by Michael S. Gant


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