Barn owl, from Thomas Bewick, A History of British Birds, 1809.

15. Bewick, Thomas (1753-1828).
A History of British Birds.
Newcastle: Printed by Edward Walker, for T. Bewick, 1809.

Thomas Bewick was a new kind of naturalist: he was first and foremost an artist and a print-maker, and only secondarily a student of nature.  He pioneered a new printing technique, known as wood engraving, where the artist works on the end grain of a block of wood, instead of the side grain, and uses the burin of the engraver, rather than the knife of the woodcutter, to carve the block. Wood engravings, from Bewick’s hand, were small but extremely detailed, and have the advantage over copper engravings in that they can be printed right along with the type, instead of on a separate press.  In 1790, Bewick published A General History of Quadrupeds, and he followed this with A History of British Birds (1797-1804).  We display a later and enlarged edition of the bird volumes.

Although Bewick was primarily a wood engraver, he had a great eye for birds, and his tiny images are full of charm and wit.  His descriptions are short and to the point, and he usually told the reader where his specimens were obtained. He always provides the Linnaean name for each bird, but he often adds Buffon’s name as well.  As an additional touch, Bewick sprinkled his works with tiny vignettes at the ends of chapters and sections that added considerably to the visual appeal of the volumes.  Bewick showed that a book on the natural world did not have to be large and expensive to be useful, accurate, and attractive.

Kingfisher, from Thomas Bewick, A History of British Birds, 1809.
Linda hall Library