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Thomas Bewick

Tale-pieces

8 April — 25 May 2009

Ikon presented the first exhibition devoted entirely to the vignettes of British wood engraver, artist and naturalist Thomas Bewick.

Born in Cherryburn, near Mickley, Northumberland in 1753, Bewick worked in Newcastle until his death in 1828. Clearly infuenced by his childhood on a small farm on the banks of the river Tyne, Bewick’s love of the countryside is reflected in his detailed woodcuts of animals, birds and rural scenes. Amongst his most ambitious projects were illustrations for General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and History of British Birds (two volumes, 1797 and 1804), both of which also included a great number of vignettes. Bewick referred to these as ‘tale-pieces’. Intended as illustrations of “some truth or point of some moral” they provide an invaluable insight into social history while also demonstrating the artist’s imagination and wit.

Bewick’s images frequently reveal human frailties; one depicts a drunkard seeing two moons in the night sky; another shows a horse stopping on the  bank of a river to avoid falling into the water, while his rider is oblivious. A dog is also present and aware of the imminent danger. An interpretation, written later by his daughter Jane, sums up the artist’s general attitude: “Instinct teaches these two dumb animals to walk wisely – churches and sign-boards do not avail in teaching men to keep in the right path”. Mortality is a subject to which Bewick often returns. In one poignant vignette he shows us children dressed in tall hats, holding swords aloft, riding gravestones like hobby-horses. A late subject is an emaciated horse, standing exposed to the cruel elements, “Waiting for Death”.

One tale-piece in particular attracts interest amongst artists today. It features a small scene with a house and figure on horseback almost totally obscured by the artist’s engraved thumb-print. With this unprecedented gesture Bewick asserts his authorship at the expense of a carefully wrought image.

Cut into the end-grain of blocks of box-wood, an exceptionally close-grained hard wood, Bewick’s tale-pieces are necessarily small in size, making us even more aware of the extraordinary skill involved in their production. Ikon  provided magnifying glasses for visitors to view the detail involved. Ikon’s exhibition included approximately 150 tale-pieces, selected in consultation with Iain Bain, a leading expert on Thomas Bewick.

 A fully illustrated catalogue is available for £24.95. In addition Ikon has produced a limited edition, printed on a hand press by Iain Bain from three original Bewick woodblocks. This is an edition of 75, priced £85 and shows three vignettes.

Thomas Bewick Tale-pieces was supported by Patzi Haslimann (Ikon chairman 2002–6).

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