Roger Tory Peterson is routinely credited with launching birdwatching as a popular hobby in the 20th century. The 1934 publication of his Guide to the Birds got things going, with its clear, color illustrations and field mark system making bird id simple even for urbanites who’d rarely noticed birds before. A prolific writer and photographer as well as painter, Peterson traveled the world, using his talents and charisma to spread the gospel of birding and environmentalism to anyone who would listen. Before Peterson’s death in 1996, Paul Ehrlich said, “In this century, no one has done more to promote an interest in living creatures than Roger Tory Peterson, the inventor of the modern field guide.”
An 18th century counterpart to Peterson is charmingly revealed in Jenny Uglow’s new biography, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick. The humble Bewick (1753-1828), who rarely traveled beyond his native Northumbria, inspired a generation of nature enthusiasts through his art much like his globe-trotting, media-savvy successor. Uglow details how Bewick elevated the craft of wood engraving to a fine art, developing a realistic, often whimsical, style that became popular for illustrating publications ranging from bookplates and business cards to broadsides and multi-volume tomes. One irresistible feature of Uglow’s biography is the plethora of original-sized samples of Bewick’s work, especially his “talepieces,” or miniature vignettes of rural life--often nostalgic, sometimes sardonic, but always worth careful scrutiny.
Art-lovers collect and revere Bewick’s prints and have formed the Bewick Society to promulgate his legacy. Naturalists esteem him primarily for two works: A General History of Quadrupeds and A History of British Birds. Bewick foreshadowed his much-younger contemporary, Audubon, by depicting his birds in their habitats, relying only on ink on carved boxwood to convey much of what Audubon could with watercolor and brushstrokes. Legendary art critic John Ruskin wrote, “. . . the execution of the plumage in Bewick’s birds is the most masterly thing ever done in woodcutting. . . “
Says Uglow, Bewick’s accessibly-priced volumes catalyzed the early Victorian craze in nature study that fostered the obsessive studies of Darwin and other pivotal 19th century naturalists. Uglow writes, “For a century, Bewick’s work was often a child’s first introduction to studies of animals and birds.” Charlotte Bronte even allows Jane Eyre a few moments of solace with his books. As Jane narrates, “With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy!” Uglow’s intimate look at Bewick’s life and craft offers, more than most artist's biographies, insight into how Bewick attained his lasting achievements. As she explains, Thomas Bewick loved his home moors and dells, and the animals that shared them with him, so deeply that he believed others must share that emotion. “His unpretentious tailpieces of travelers and farmers, streams and windy moors, make the past live, and his woodcuts of animals and birds let us share his own wonder at the human and the natural world, from the ‘Mufflon Zebu’ to the swallow sweeping through the northern skies.” With swift sure strokes, Uglow presents a life of texture, shade, and depth that will lead readers to a clearer understanding of how art, long before Peterson or even Audubon, has helped define--and change--our place in the natural environment.