They named a swan for him
NOT everyone can claim the distinction of having a bird named after him. The 18th-century Tyneside artist Thomas Bewick certainly deserved such a perpetuation of his name (the Linnaean Society honored him posthumously by naming the ``Bewick's swan''), even if his crisp little black-and-white wood engravings had not already ensured the lasting admiration of both naturalists and artists. His two-volume ``History of British Birds'' (1797 and 1804) is considered his masterpiece. Its vitality and determined clarity of observation, particularly of the native birds he knew best in nature, brought a breath of fresh air to ornithological illustration in his day. The freshness persists.
His slightly earlier ``General History of Quadrupeds'' had been a conscious attempt to improve on the animal pictures he had encountered in books as a schoolboy -- pictures that would have been the exhausted tail end of a long tradition reaching back to the medieval bestiaries.
With his birds he likewise aimed at revitalization. ``At the beginning of this undertaking,'' he wrote, ``I made up my mind to copy nothing from the Works of others but to stick to nature as closely as I could.''
It wasn't easy. He studied stuffed birds but found that often ``no regard'' was paid to their ``proper attitudes'' and that even the feathers had been wrongly placed so that they did not ``fall properly upon each other.'' He actually did find valuable source material in earlier histories of birds, particularly in illustrations to the works of George Edwards and the Conte de Buffon. But the special vigor and lifelikeness that made country lovers feel (as one wrote) that ``the opening of Bewick was a new era in our lives'' must have been due to his long, affectionate observation and knowledge of bird character and behavior since childhood. In spite of a distaste for killing birds, he also had to rely on newly shot specimens supplied by his sporting friends.
Bewick's ``Birds'' was immediately popular -- and not just with children. Writing in 1867, Charles Kingsley recorded that his father, ``a sportsman and field-naturalist,'' had, in the first two decades of the 19th century, ``loved the book, & carried it with him up and down.'' Though at first he had been ``laughed at for having `bought a book about dicky birds' '' his ``fellow squires [soon] agreed that it was the most clever book they had ever seen, & a revelation to them. . . .''
Bewick also found a considerable later admirer in Ruskin, who praised the amazing subtlety of his technique as a wood engraver -- ``the execution of the plumage in Bewick's birds is the most masterly thing ever done in woodcutting.''
Strictly the term should be ``wood engraving.'' Bewick was the outstanding exponent of this 18th-century craft (which later became the typical method of black-and-white illustration in Victorian books). Unlike the woodcut, the wood engraving is cut across the end-grain of a very hard wood like box or pear, instead of along the ``plank'' of a soft wood. A graver is used instead of a knife. Wood engraving permitted incised, detailed work virtually impossible in wood cutting. The visually stimulating effec t of many of Bewick's prints is partly due to the remarkable inventiveness with which he exploits one of wood engraving's chief traits: White lines are produced on a black ground rather than black lines on white. His ``Magpie'' is a striking example.
This tiny 18th-century depiction of one of Britain's commoner birds still retains surprising realism and presence. The magpie's springy, slightly alarmed posture; its daredevil eye; and its long, balancing tail are all instantly recognizable. Although its black plumage is magically iridescent, its visual impact is essentially a vivid contrast of white and black parts -- so it is very adaptable to the character of Bewick's technique.
This artist's natural vision has been rightly twinned with the poetry of the Northamptonshire poet John Clare. He was also a contemporary of the parson Gilbert White, author of ``The Natural History of Selborne.'' (In his ``Memoir'' Bewick expressed himself ``much pleased'' with this book.) All three were acute observers of the birdlife in rural hedgerows, fields, and gardens. Clare's glimpse of the magpie in ``Autumn Birds'' feels as authentic as Bewick's alert personage in black ink, just alighted on the gravelly ground: ``. . . With length of tail the magpie winnows on/ To neighbouring tree. . . .''
In the backgrounds to his birds Bewick enjoys a freedom and love of his local, familiar countryside that adds greatly to their appeal and naturalness. In the case of his ``Magpie'' there also seems to be some enigmatic additional meaning. A horse in the background appears to have met an end by falling over a small cliff, breaking a fence. What possible connection has this incident with the magpie? Perhaps, for all his objectivity, Bewick has indulged a touch of folklore. He must have known the old count ry doggerel regarding this bird: ``One for sorrow, two for mirth,/ Three's a wedding, four's a birth'' (and so on).
And he was doubtless aware of the rustic superstition that a magpie chattering round a house presages death (a nonsense disproved daily, of course). His famous ``tail-pieces'' are amusingly full of such stories and beliefs. Perhaps he felt that the noisy, mischievous, egg-stealing, carrion-eating magpie was so inextricably tied up with such old wives' tales that he couldn't ignore them. So in some ways he was still heir to the hand-me-down symbolisms of the medieval bestiaries.
If he had been a Chinese artist he would have been familiar with a quite contrary myth. In China the magpie is considered a good omen, a ``bringer of joy.'' In fact, his bright, accurate image of this delightful bird suggests he really knew that anyway.