On birds and beauty

<strong>Nature's Engraver: a life of Thomas Bewick</strong>

Jenny Uglow <em>Faber & Faber, 392pp,

The engraver and ornithologist Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) made his mark. Literally made it, with an engraving of his own thumbprint, pasted into his books to attest their authenticity. Perhaps he pressed an inky thumb on to a boxwood block before shaving away curls of wood to reveal each arch, just as he engraved the delicate vermiculations of plumage in his History of British Birds (1797-1804), the sturdy musculature of prize livestock in his General History of Quadrupeds (1790-96), and the intense little vignettes of country life so familiar to us from a thousand impressions in books and on cards, jam labels and calendars. So durable were the boxwood blocks upon which his designs were cut that Bewick's books could be printed in large editions. He himself was struck with wonder after calculating that one tiny image of roofs and steeple had been printed in the Newcastle Chronicle 900,000 times. Bewick's aim was to make a personal, durable mark on the world. While out fishing he'd muse on suitable poems that "I would, if I could afford it, have committed to the care of a rock".

He need not have worried. Bewick is an immortal, acknowledged as perhaps the finest wood engraver of all time. It was an unlikely fate for a wild Newcastle farmer's lad who charged naked over the fells and terrorised his peers. But the lad also drew compulsively: in the margins of his schoolbooks, with stubs of chalk on gravestones and on the backs of pews with a nail. At 14, Bewick was apprenticed to the engraver- jeweller Ralph Beilby in the "inky, bustling, competitive milieu" of Newcastle. There he found both radical politics and his artistic metier. Delicate copper engravings were then the fashion: Beilby gave Bewick the coarser, more demeaning work in wood. Self- assured, more than a little bloody-minded, Bewick made it his own. He studied Dürer, experimented with techniques, illustrated newly fashionable children's books. In 1777 he joined Beilby as partner, taking apprentices of his own. Bewick was frustrated that he couldn't mould them entirely in his image, but many learned to replicate his skills to an astonishing degree and became as close as family. There are sad stories here. The talented, energetic Luke Clennell, for example, ended his days sketching guards and peacocks from the window of a lunatic asylum.

Bewick's workshop churned out everything from christening mugs to coffin lids. But in the evening, Bewick worked on books "completely his own". The first, Quadrupeds, brought him fame. Hundreds of specimens were sent to him for his next book, on British birds: parcels of curlews, "sometimes a dozen or 18 at once"; a live, rather dangerous puffin; a guillemot that preened unconcerned under the table while being sketched, before Bewick took it again down to the sea. In a sense, Bewick carved British bird species into existence. His volumes contained the first clear, recognisable, readily available images of our avifauna. It had immense impact. Charles Kingsley remembered his father's "fellow squires" agreeing that it was "a revelation to them - who had had these phenomena under their eyes all their lives, and never noticed them".

Nature's Engraver is a beautiful book, bubbling with anecdote and atmosphere, deftly drawing in the great political and scientific landscapes of Bewick's age. Like Bewick, Uglow has a "soft spot" for eccentrics; many of her characters resemble those fascinating, animated figures in the background of Bewick's woodcuts. But Bewick himself is hard as boxwood. Uglow has dug deep into the archives, sources, correspondence. In many respects he is as open as the sky. A "plain, no-nonsense man", explains Uglow: bluff, direct, lover of nature, champion of the common man; "cussed in quarrels, stubborn in holding a grudge". Though fêted in his lifetime, Bewick had no airs. He refused to be portrayed in a toga, wore a brown cap to hide a bald patch and greeted eminent visitors with a cheery: "Sit down - sit down - how's your father?" Walking, fishing and striding to pubs after work to meet friends, eat cake, drink ale: these were his greatest pleasures.

It was, as Uglow says, an ordinary life. But his woodcuts are extra-ordinary. Uglow is less in love with Bewick than with his talent, skill, his literal impressions, in the form of these cuts. It is not in her narrative of Bewick's life, but in her descriptions of the physical process of artistic creation, and her musings on individual engravings, that Uglow is at her most energetic and fluid. But separating Bewick and his work is a difficult task. A tiny vignette shows a cottage and a rider part-obscured by Bewick's engraved thumbprint. Here is real life obscuring art - a human thumbprint blotting out a delicately engraved landscape. Yet the thumbprint is itself artfully carved. Equally, then, the picture shows art obscuring a scene of everyday life. It's a meditation that is the key to this book. Bewick's flesh- and-blood thumb decayed on his death, but his engraved "tom thumb" is immortal, a mark of genius that inevitably blots out the mundane details of his ordinary life.

Helen Macdonald's book "Falcon" is published by Reaktion