Pet Book Project Introduction: Bewick’s Aesop

New posts on Bewick’s Aesop:

Part 2.1, Origins

Part 2.3, Audience

Part 2.4, Decoration

The “pet book” I chose for this project is a first edition of Aesop’s fables published in 1818 by  Newcastle: E. Walker for T. Bewick and Son. I was first drawn to this book due to the beautiful wood engravings by Thomas Bewick– a master of his craft at the time– illustrating each page. I also grew up reading Aesop’s fables, so the subject matter held a sort of nostalgic attraction for me. However, while those things might have provoked my initial interest in this particular book, it was holding it in my hands and really seeing the beauty and intricacy of the binding and cover that sold me on choosing it as my pet book.

Close up shot of the binding and cover; red morocco and gilt
Shot of the inside of the book

According to documents found inside the cover of the book, it was bound by Riviere & Son in red morocco (fine goat leather), decorated with elaborate tooling and gilt. As you can see in the photo above, the cover is extremely beautiful and intricate; and the fairly large size of the book itself only makes this amount of fine detail and gilding more impressive. The cover is in very good condition as well, for being 200 years old. As you can see in the photo, there is a bit of wear along the spine, and some along the corners as well, but everything else remains pristine. It felt quite sturdy and stable in my hands. While I was obviously careful in opening the cover and turning the pages, there never seemed like a true risk of damaging something too badly. This is true of the inside of the book, as well. There is very minimal damage to the pages, besides some yellowing and a few spots, which are likely just a part of the book’s natural aging process. Given the lack of wear, and the elaborate nature of its decoration, I would guess this book was more so for display rather than frequent reading. Due to the intricate decoration and illustrations, it was likely quite expensive as well and therefore not meant to be handled as much as your average book.

The title page of the book; the spots previously mentioned are visible near the top

There is almost writing or marking in the margins of the pages, either. There is some writing on the very first page of  the book, denoting the passage of the book to the Bewick family in November of 1818, but nothing beyond that. The paper used for the pages is also quite smooth and speckled with age, with gilded edges that only add to the luxurious feel of the book.

Writing on first page marking passage of the book to the Bewicks
Gilded edges

Right underneath the handwritten note pictured above, there is a very interesting mark. It is the fingerprint of Thomas Bewick, the artist responsible for the wood engravings in the book, verifying that the artwork included is in fact his. This verification, Bewick being a well-known pioneer in the field of wood engraving, adds greatly to the value (and beauty) of such a book.

Thomas Bewick’s mark

As you proceed past the first few pages into the book, there is also a table of contents.  It is organized alphabetically by the name of the fables, giving page numbers for each. Traditionally, most editions of Aesop’s Fables contains various different stories, all quite brief in length, so a table of contents as included in this edition helps the reader navigate to specific fables without having to flip through the entire book. The stories themselves usually take up one or two pages, with a wood engraving illustrating each one. The illustrations are in black and white, and typically depict the main characters of whatever fable they are heading. There is also a smaller illustration at the end of each of the fables. The stories are also split into two parts; the fable itself, and what is titled the “Application”, or a description of the moral lesson that the fable teaches.

First page of the Table of Contents
A page featuring one of the fables
A close up of one of the wood engravings by Thomas Bewick at the start of each fable
An example of one of the smaller engravings at the end of each fable

The font of the book itself is medium in size and quite easy to read. The book could easily be much more compact than it is now, as the margins are extremely wide, which just goes to show that this was certainly made with more of a focus on decoration, intricacy and luxury rather than readability and portability. As stated previously, this is not a book you carry around with you to read in your spare minutes- it seems meant to sit on a table and have its beauty appreciated. Certainly, that’s what I did when I first came in contact with the book. From the delicate tooling on the cover to the rich red morocco to the artful wood engravings emblazoned on every page, it’s an astonishing book. However, I’m even more excited to move beyond it’s physical features and delve into the (surely rich) history of this book that has so captivated me.