Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hamilton Rules!

Nature’s Engraver: a Life of Thomas Bewick
Written by Jenny Uglow
Faber and Faber 2006
458 pp, b/w illustrations and colour plates, hardcover

The relief printmaking technique of wood engraving in this country is mainly known through the prints of Mervyn Taylor and to some extent, more recently, Campbell Smith. Smith was also director of what became the Waikato Museum of Art and History Te Whare Taonga o Waikato, and one of the great legacies he acquired for the city of Hamilton is a fabulous collection of prints by his hero, the Englishman Thomas Bewick (1753 -1828).

Stored away in Solander boxes are about 300 of Bewick’s small but fantastically detailed, accurate and often humorous engravings. Many of these he published in his pioneering birdwatching guides for British birds, and other books such as those of mammals of the world. This Tynesider was a celebrity in his day, his pastoral images adored by everybody from Wordsworth and Bronte to Ruskin. Sadly in Aotearoa he is almost unknown. Outside of Hamilton, to my knowledge there are no Bewick prints in the main municipal or national art collections, despite the fact that he virtually invented line engraving and that many of the feathered and furry subjects he rendered are commonplace here.

Uglow is well known as a writer of art history and literary biographies, and highly regarded for her works on William Hogarth, Doctor Johnson and George Eliot – as well as various scientists. She is an historian with an obviously encyclopaedic knowledge of the various intricacies of eighteenth century British culture, and a gifted communicator at showing how seemingly disparate elements are actually vitally related. The importance of her book is that she provides a panoramic contextual setting for Bewick’s genius, makes clear why this workaholic was idolised, and explains how he became prolific at making extremely intricate images (based on astute observation) that need a magnifying glass to appreciate - at the time of Blake when there was no electricity, only candles. To see the merits of Bewick’s images, Unglow’s book illustrations are a bit pinched, a little too fine. If so desired they can be ignored in favour of enlarged pictures found in other publications. Most municipal libraries have them. Or better still, make an appointment with one of the registrars at Waikato Museum and check out the real thing.

The best parts of Uglow’s biography are where she is explaining precisely how he made his images – he used slices of boxwood cut against the grain, with fine steel engraving burins or tools with tips like needles - and what his innovations in printing methods were (parts of the block were printed by tilting, with less pressure to make the more distant lines greyer) and how he was successful at acquiring new information on wildlife by people sending him dead (or half-alive) creatures. His tailpieces that filled up the ends of pages, smaller images of fable-like vignettes depicting the human inhabitants of the countryside, are immensely entertaining and perhaps even more popular than his zoological renderings, being packed with little narratives and jokes about the ‘rustic’ life. The ‘vulgarity’ of his earthy humour used to worry his champions like Ruskin, who moaned that his ‘fixed love of ugliness…is in the English soul.’

Bewick, and his early teacher then partner Ralph Beilby, employed various apprentices in their Newcastle workshop to help keep up with the escalating demand for his illustrations. He did occasionally travel to London but was never tempted to move there. He hated the crowds, disliked its anonymity, and was invariably homesick.

Uglow makes clear how radical Bewick’s political views were during that Georgian era, when the government had spies in many public houses looking for supporters of the American or French revolutions to haul before the magistrates. Bewick was a Northumbrian humanitarian, a champion of William Wilberforce and the anti-slavery movement, one deeply resentful of trigger-happy militarism. At one time in the mid 1790s the repressive climate made him so fearful he briefly considered emigrating to America, for his views were well known in Westminister. Even James Gillray, when employed by the Tory government, created lampooning images with motifs referencing him.

To contemporary eyes Bewick is valued as an early champion of the natural habitat and its dwellers, an opponent of cruelty to animals (though not of hunting) and a major crusader for the keen observation of what hitherto had only been dismissed as ‘dickie birds.’ Others had published bird images before him, but none with his detail and accuracy. He opened up for the public a new world of wildlife in their own backyard, methodically explained and suddenly made excitingly accessible.

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