#134: TAKING CAPTIVITY CAPTIVE. Surely one of the most convincing pairings of poet and artist must be in the poetry of John Clare and the eighteenth-century engraver Thomas Bewick. “Ecology” was a word and a concern waiting to be invented, but it’s impossible to read Carcanet’s edition of Clare’s Northborough Sonnets without that term constantly coming to mind. Clare, who in the range of his sympathy and the pathos of his life reminds me of the great Japanese haiku poets, Kobayashi Issa in particular, in this collection encompasses a vast catalogue of not just the people but the birds and kine and swamps and storms of his world-to-hand: we read the sonnets not individually but as cumulating chapters in a connected picture of this world. The rapt seeming naivete of Clare’s voice here, emphasized by the editors’ hewing to his manuscript omission of most punctuation, only brings us closer to his vision. It seems entirely right, almost inevitable, that the collection is illustrated with images from Thomas Bewick: these worlds and images tally to the last detail.
Bewick was village-born in Northumberland, apprenticed to a Newcastle engraver, and made his living thereby ‘til his death. One of the marvels of reading Bewick’s memoir is how absorbing a story it is of a life almost entirely ordinary; he was the kid who was off in the corner drawing when he should have been doing lessons, and was lucky enough and talented enough to make it a trade. Midway through his working life it struck him, amid the tangle of everyday tasks, to begin work on a pair of books, The General History of Quadrupeds and AHistory of British Birds, forerunners of the now innumerable nature guides, the Audubon and Peterson guides, that so many of us rely on. He chose to work in box wood, a hard and durable wood that meshed well with metal type, with pieces cut across the grain rather than in planks. This meant that each piece of wood was only a few inches across, and if ever an artist was formed and released by the physical limitations of his materials, it was Bewick. These modest-sized images turned out to be perfect for the capturing of bird and beast; but the format of his books also had column spaces that begged to be filled, which he accomplished with small scenes of rural and village life—the famous “tail pieces” that are now the best loved of his work, marvelous small vignettes that seem a fulfillment of the very idea of working in miniature. In Bewick’s memoir there is a charming account of his having given a young man a copy of the Quadrupeds book in advance of payment and seeing him, later in the day, sitting under a tree, as absorbed as a child, and we are likely to fall into Bewick’s work in much the same way. Here is a genuine figure and individual in the history of British art, who made his own way and spoke in his own voice; the few inches of wood that Bewick worked in turned out to be world enough, rather like Jane Austen’s little bits of ivory.
For Bewick’s autobiography, there is a trade edition in print from Oxford, A Memoir of Thomas Bewick, and a cannily abridged version, My Life, published by the Folio Society, both generously illustrated and edited by the great Bewick scholar, Iain Bain. University of Chicago Press has recently (2009) done a handsome reprint of A General History of Quadrupeds. The History of British Birds is harder to find inexpensively; it’s in print from Cambridge University Press, and can also be found online. A fair number of the books Bewick illustrated, including the fables of Aesop, can also be found online. Carcanet has also published a Selected Work in paperback, edited by Robyn Marsack, a good selection of the engravings. Of the biographies, Montague Weekley’s (Oxford, 1953) is readable but mostly cribbed from the Memoir. Happily there is a spiffing new biography now from Farrar Strauss and Giroux, Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick, by Jenny Uglow (2006). Get ready to be taken captive.