Bewick’s Aesop Part 2.4: Decoration

Previous posts on Bewick’s Aesop:

Part 2.3, Audience

Part 2.1, Origins

Part 1, Introduction

 

My pet book, Bewick’s Fables of Aesop and Others, is undoubtedly a beautiful object– but perhaps the most stunning part of the volume are the wood engravings done by Thomas Bewick himself. Famous for their intricacy and clear technical mastery, Bewick’s woodblock prints adorn almost every page in the book.

 

examples of the illustrations that head every fable in the book

 

Many of the illustrations are found at the beginning of each fable, usually capturing a moment from the fable itself. However, there are also illustrations in the beginning of the book, one even depicting the location where the book was printed.

 

illustration depicting Newcastle, England, where this edition was printed

 

Another illustration found at the beginning of the book

As you can see, these woodblock prints are quite detailed and intricate– especially considering most are no bigger than three or so inches all around. But why talk about the illustrations? Why are they important? How do they help make Fables of Aesop and Others into the book it is today? In order to answer these questions, we must look more closely at Thomas Bewick and the work he put into these engravings.

Bewick, born in England in 1753, was a true pioneer in his field. While he experimented with various mediums, he mainly worked with wood in a process known as wood engraving– a printmaking technique where one carves an image into a block of wood, applies ink to its surface and then presses it onto the paper to create an illustration. This technique allowed for the same illustration to appear in multiple copies of a text, as the woodblocks could simply be re-inked and reused.

a diagram showing the basics of how wood engravings work

However, Bewick did not stick to the tried-and-true methods of woodblock printing. Rather, he went against the grain– literally. Unlike anyone else, Bewick used metal engraving tools to cut hard boxwood across the grain, producing woodblocks that could be integrated with metal type but were much more durable than other, more traditional woodcuts. This durability can be seen in the survival of many of his woodblocks today. Several are stored in Colby College’s Special Collections, with almost all of their minuscule details intact.

Several of Bewick’s woodblocks from Colby College’s Special Collections. The reason why the raised portions of the engravings are shiny is because the oily ink residue from years of use still remains.

These methods, as you can see from the pictures above, also allowed Bewick to achieve an incredible level of detail. This skill and innovation quickly lifted him to fame as an illustrator, particularly so after the publication of his two-volume A History of British Birds, finished in 1804. These ornately illustrated natural history volumes established Bewick as the clear leader in wood engraving and made his illustrations sought-after by all. His techniques were soon copied by others, and wood engraving eventually became the primary method of illustrating books for over a century. Clearly, Thomas Bewick’s impact in the world of book illustration is monumental.

This is interesting to think about in the broader context of the book as a whole as well as in Bewick’s history with Aesop’s fables. After all (as discussed in my previous post), when he embarked upon his first edition of Aesop’s fables in 1776, he initially intended it for children. This makes sense. Aesop’s Fables, with their easy-to-digest moral lessons and somewhat fantastical animal characters, are understandably popular with children. This is why so many editions of Aesop’s fables, like Bewick’s 1776 version, are illustrated– the pictures are captivating to a younger audience.  Yet, as his celebrity status as a wood engraver grew, Bewick found that it wasn’t just the children being captivated. Across the age and socioeconomic range, people devoured his illustrations with the same fervor children might, driving up demand for his engravings. By 1818, when this volume was published– quite shortly before Bewick’s death– his work had transformed from entertainment for children to true artistry that was loved by many. That makes this book, one of his last works to see daylight, a truly important historical record of not only Bewick’s transformation as an artist but of the transformation of book illustration as a whole. As is stated in Printing, 1770-1970: An Illustrated History of its development and uses in England, “…Bewick raised the craft of making printed images from wood to a new level and paved the way for a revolution in communication in the nineteenth century” (Twyman 18). From his first edition of the fables in 1776 to his last in 1818, truly rocked the world of illustration– and my pet book serves as record to all that.

As I pondered the historical significance Bewick’s illustrations give to my pet book, I began to think about the binding (yes, again). If you’ve read my previous posts, you know the multitude of questions surrounding the rebinding of this book by Riviere and Son have puzzled me for a while (read more about the binding here). I know most of them will likely never be answered; however, the content of this post does provide a bit of context as to why it might have been rebound. As discussed above, Bewick was famous for his contributions to the world of illustration by the time my pet book was published, and this fame was no less diminished with time. He was a trailblazer, paving the way for countless future artists and illustrators for decades to come– so doesn’t it make sense that my pet book, a sort of record of Bewick’s legacy, of his final work, would be revered? Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but I’d like to believe that whoever rebound this book saw it as the same important historical document that I do, and thus changed the exterior to match its true value. After all, bindings by Riviere & Son were not cheap. They were the best of the best, true showstoppers, and the binding on my pet book is no different. By rebinding this book, in all the glory of its red morocco leather and delicate gilting, I believe we get to see how the reverence and respect for Bewick’s legacy as a wood engraver lives on.

 

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Bewick

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_engraving

https://www.tes.com/lessons/wfCIBXNPXhyh7A/relief-printing

Michael Twyman, Printing, 1770-1970: An Illustrated History of its development
and uses in England (Oak Knoll, 1998), 18-110

+ a special thanks to all the fantastic people in Colby’s Special Collections who pulled out the woodblocks for me/ helped me find this book in the first place!