Current Exhibitions

Wood Engravings by Thomas Bewick

04/30/2014 - 11/01/2014

No location provided


A master of wood engraving, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) is celebrated for his minute and exquisitely detailed images of the natural world. As a child growing up a small farm on the River Tyne in rural England, the artist roamed the countryside to fish, hunt for flowers, and watch birds and animals.  A precocious youth, Bewick was apprenticed to a local engraver when he was 14 years old. The artist’s talent manifested rapidly, and soon publishers sought him out as a book illustrator. Among Bewick’s most important works are A General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and A History of British Birds (Volume I, 1797; Volume II, 1804; Supplement, 1821).  

Bewick’s creative use of wood engravings was a major advancement in the production of illustrated books. Unlike copperplate images, a wood engraving could be integrated into a text block and printed simultaneously. This greatly reduced the cost of illustrating books.  In addition, Bewick was a brilliant innovator, perfecting the technique of incising designs into endwood (the cross-cut section of wood with no perceptible grain). The resulting blocks yielded prints of incredible delicacy and detail. Bewick also excelled at using a range of finely incised parallel lines to convey different tones and textures. The artist likewise discovered that by slightly lowering the background areas of compositions, these passages would receive less pressure during printing. As a result, these parts of the block produced subtle, shaded tones, heightening the effect of atmosphere and space.  

Curated by Stanton Thomas, Curator of European and Decorative Art  

Thomas Bewick, English, 1753-1828
The Cock from A History of British Birds, Volume I, published in 1797
Wood engraving
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. R. Hunter Middleton  53.26.1