Thomas Bewick was an English woodcut artist from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Examples of his work are currently showing at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK until May 25th. The Guardian‘s writeup on the show explains his work thusly:
By the late 18th century, the woodblock was the poor relation to steel or copper engravings. Bewick brought the medium back to life, at the end of each long day’s work printing money for the Bank of Northumberland. He also found time to produce an enormously popular General History of Quadrupeds, as well as a two-volume History of British Birds, in which these Tale-pieces originally appeared (their name is a play on the fact that they are tail-pieces, decorative squibs designed to fill up space at the end of a text).
There is enormous pleasure in these tiny images, sketched on paper then transferred to a bit of Turkish box-wood, which Bewick then engraved, using little tools he mostly made himself. He imagined image after image, right up until the day he died in 1828. It is surprising he kept his sight. Sometimes he even drew on his thumbnail, licking the images off with his tongue when he wanted to draw another. He would have made a wonderful animator.
Bewick’s first masterpiece, “A General History of Quadrupeds,” appeared in 1790, when the study of natural history began to be fashionable. There were no field guides of the sort we take for granted; the world of collectors was unconnected and the discipline of classification nascent. In preparation, Bewick spent nine years studying anything he could get his hands on. He collected illustrations made by artists who accompanied explorers into the wild; he visited touring menageries and borrowed items from private collections of taxidermy.
To prepare for his second masterpiece, “A History of British Birds,” Bewick sent out word that he needed specimens, and the northern gentry pitched in with enthusiasm. Crates began to arrive, full of birds either clawing for release or long dead, putrid and crawling with maggots. Bewick carefully examined them, then carved his miniature drawings into blocks of boxwood, sliced from logs sent up from London.
Thanks very much to Marksman Ed S. for sending along the info about the gallery show, which led to my discovering all the rest!