See his memoirs (1862); biographies by R. Robinson (1887, repr. 1972) and J. Uglow (2007); studies by A. Dobson (1884, repr. 1969), R. Ruzicka (1943), G. Reynolds (1949), I. Bain (1979), and D. Gardner-Medwin, ed. (2003).
The Tawny Owl, wood engraving by Thomas Bewick, from his elipsis
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Bewick was born at Cherryburn House in the village of Mickley, in the parish of Ovingham, Northumberland, England, near Newcastle upon Tyne on August 12, 1753. His father rented a small colliery at Mickley Bank, and sent his son to school in the nearby village of Ovingham.
Bewick was a poor scholar, but showed, at a very early age, a talent for drawing. He had no lessons in art. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, an engraver in Newcastle. In Beilby's workshop Bewick engraved a series of diagrams on wood for Dr. Charles Hutton, illustrating a treatise on mensuration. He seems thereafter to have devoted himself entirely to engraving on wood, and in 1775 he received a premium from the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce for a wood engraving of the "Huntsman and the Old Hound". In 1776 he became a partner in Beilby's workshop.
His Select Fables (1784) had engravings which were far superior to any that had yet been done. A General History of Quadrupeds appeared in 1790, and Bewick's great achievement, that with which his name is inseparably associated, the History of British Birds, was published from 1797-1804. His Birds was published in two volumes, "Land Birds" and "Water Birds", with a supplement in 1821. The Quadrupeds deals with mammals of the whole world, and is particularly thorough on some of the domestic animals. It includes bats and seals but does not include whales or dolphins. The Birds is specifically British. Bewick was helped by his intimate knowledge of the habits of animals acquired during his constant excursions into the country. He also recounts information passed to him by acquaintances and local gentry, and that obtained in natural history works of his time, including those by Thomas Pennant and Gilbert White, as well as the translation of Buffon's Histoire naturelle. Many of the illustrations most frequently reproduced at the present day are vignettes and tailpieces at the bottoms of the pages of the original.
Other works for which he became well known included the engravings for Oliver Goldsmith's Traveller and Deserted Village, for Thomas Parnell's Hermit, for William Somervile's Chase and for the collection of Fables of Aesop and Others. Bewick had numerous pupils, several of whom gained distinction as engravers. These included William Harvey, and his son and later partner Robert Elliott Bewick.
Bewick's art is considered the pinnacle of its medium. This is likely due to his methods: Bewick, unlike his predecessors, would carve in harder woods, notably box wood, against the grain, using fine tools normally favoured by metal engravers. This proved to be far superior, and has been the dominant method used since.
His autobiography, Memoirs of Thomas Bewick, by Himself, appeared in 1862. Shortly after Bewick's death, he was commemorated by the naming of a species of swan, Bewick's Swan. Bewick's Wren also took his name. The Thomas Bewick Primary School, in Newcastle upon Tyne, is named after him.
Bewick is also noteworthy for having used his fingerprint as a form of signature, in conjunction with his written name to denote individuality in his publications. The significance of this happening nearly 200 years ago lead some to believe that Bewick is among the first to recognize the uniqueness of each individual human fingerprint.