Book Excerpt



London and New Castle: The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 1999. large 8vo. hardcover, dust jacket. 384 pages. Forty years before the turn of the 18th century, a small, prestigious bookplate workshop was established, the likes of which were never to be seen again after its employment of one man: Thomas Bewick. To this day, the works of the bookplate shop of Beilby & Bewick are highly collectible and valued in the antiques world..... READ MORE

Price: $35.00  other currencies  Order nr. 54988




IN AN IDEAL world, firm identification of Beilby-Bewick bookplates would proceed from clear visual clues – signature, style of engraving, a personal connection with the workshop or a close geographical location – backed up by authoritative archival evidence. As we have seen, most bookplates from the workshop were left unsigned, so the avenue afforded by a signature is firmly closed. Nevertheless, though the tendril hallmark remains the most outward and visible sign of an armorial copperplate bookplate from the Beilby-Bewick workshop, other indications do exist. The workshop, with its background of engraving on silver and copper, strongly favoured open-faced lettering – a feature which persisted well into the nineteenth century with Robert Bewick. In addition, the workshop employees and apprentices were curiously loath to eradicate their lettering guidelines, with the result that they were usually picked up when impressions were taken. As for personal connections, though Ralph Beilby left little or nothing in the way of autobiography, the Bewick family left a large corpus of personal reminiscences, the most comprehensive of which is Thomas Bewick’s inimitable Memoir. And finally, if a bookplate mentions Newcastle, Gateshead or any of the surrounding towns and villages by name, the strong possibility is that, depending on the date, it emanated from the workshop.

Obviously all the foregoing remarks apply primarily to copperplate armorials. Wood-engraved pictorial bookplates, being less formulaic in approach and clearer in ‘handwriting’ terms, are less problematic. For that reason, and because they are more attractive, they have taken the lion’s share of ‘expert’ attention in all past accounts of Bewick’s bookplates.

Turning to the question of archival evidence, the reputation of Thomas Bewick, high in his own lifetime and thereafter jealously guarded and massaged by two of his devoted and termagant daughters, Jane and Isabella, resulted in the survival of an extraordinary volume of relevant material. Not only does much of Thomas Bewick’s personal and business correspondence survive1, but the daughters presented a comprehensive collection of their father’s commercial work to the British Museum. In addition, two authoritative scrapbooks of graphic material survive elsewhere, both from unimpeachable sources. One belonged to Robert Bewick and contains both his bookplate and his signature2. The other, briefly mentioned in an earlier context, is a ‘picture file’ which belonged to the apprentice, John Laws. However, not every image in the latter source derives unquestionably from the workshop. As well as an engraving shop, the workshop premises included a printing office, to which customers were accustomed – and perfectly entitled – to bring copperplates engraved elsewhere for printing. John Laws was not collecting for posterity and quite correctly gathered images as an everyday aide-memoire. Indeed, he probably continued to augment his scrapbook after leaving the Beilby-Bewick workshop and going into business on his own. This would have brought him into contact with Abraham Hunter whose own workshop (established 1786), Laws may have been tempted to join.

There were, at one time, two further sources which would have provided great assistance with Bewick’s bookplates. The first was an album of original drawings being “Thirty Five designs for Book Plates, chiefly by T. Bewick; a few by J. Bewick and R. E. Bewick” recorded in the collection of Edward Basil Jupp, a notable Victorian collector of Bewick’s work3. The second was a collection of 200 bookplates “mostly engraved by T. Bewick and formed by himself”, also in Jupp’s collection4. The dispersal of Jupp’s collection following his death in 1877 saw the album of original drawings bought by the Newcastle book dealer – and Bewick biographer – Robert Robinson. The engraved bookplate collection entered the substantial Bewick library of Dr. Joly. Auctioned after his death in 1893 it was described in the sale catalogue as having been “procured from Miss Bewick by the late Basil Jupp Esq.”5. Purchased by a London book dealer at the sale, it was catalogued in some detail for resale6, but regrettably neither this album – nor that of thirty-five original bookplate designs – has since surfaced.

Significant and helpful though the extant sources are, they are dwarfed by the extensive original records of ‘Messrs. Beilby and Bewick’ held in Newcastle7. They consist of Cash Books, Day Books, Ledgers, Weekly Engraving Work Account Books, Press Work Account Books, Publications Records, Outstanding Debts and Bank Books. They cover the years of Bewick’s apprenticeship and subsequent partnership with Ralph Beilby 1767–1797, the period 1798–1812 when Bewick ran the business himself, from 1812–1825 when he was in partnership with his son Robert, and the latter’s management until 1849. As might be expected, this archive looms large in the history of the Beilby-Bewick bookplates and a brief description on how the different areas of the archive complemented each other may prove helpful in understanding how a bookplate came into being.

Orders were taken at the workshop, or arrived in the post (for which, in those the days the recipient, not the sender, usually had to pay). Recorded on slips of paper, or in a series of small notebooks (none of which appear to have survived), the order was then ‘officially’ entered in the Day Book. The Day Book entries were abridged in the ledgers when the accounts were sent out, outstanding debts – bills were often left unpaid by customers for up to several years – being the subject of another series of ledgers. The weekly work done in the shop was recorded in a series of small notebooks, as was the printing work which had its own separate series of press books. Finally all cash coming in or going out of the shop was noted in books set aside for that purpose8.

Of greatest importance as far as bookplates are concerned are the Day Books. However, no source can afford to be ignored, as a tiny yet vital detail, such as occupation or christian name, may crop up in a Ledger, Weekly Engraving Book or Cash Book to supplement the Day Book entry. Entries were hardly ever standardised either in form or description. Indeed, very occasionally one seems to slip partially or totally through the net, being recorded only at the Cash Book stage, or – even worse – not being recorded at all. This is particularly noticeable at the beginning and end of the workshop’s existence. Ralph Beilby’s early accounts were sketchy at best and Thomas Bewick, as apprentice, knew no better than to simply follow suit. In the decade between 16 March 1766 (when records start) and 30 September 1776, the Weekly Engraving Books indicate the engraving of 35 bookplates, of which only a couple – for eminent local gentry such as the Ridleys – were identified. When the approximate dates for each of the other plates are collated alongside parallel information in the Day Books, Ledgers, Cash and Press Work archives, a further dozen can be accounted for. As for the balance – twenty-one in total – they cannot be retrieved from obscurity and have been noted in appendix two.

When Bewick became a partner this casual approach to records was thoroughly overhauled and put to rights. On the succession of his son Robert to the business in 1825, the records reverted to the bad old days, either quickly petering out or simply failing to survive. To further complicate the picture, Ralph Beilby and Thomas Bewick may have occasionally engraved bookplates in a private capacity. The bookplate for drawing master Joseph Barber*, for example, is one of several cut by Bewick (or by journeyman engraver Luke Clennell) and present in the British Museum collection, but unrecorded in the archives. In many cases the exact date a bookplate was executed is impossible to pin down. Whereas dates in the Day Books are reasonably accurate, references in the Weekly Engraving Books refer to week-ending dates. Added to this, much of the detail in the entries is of a cryptic nature.

So despite the wealth of archive material, confusion abounds. Moreover, exact artistic authorship of the bookplates is – except in a handful of cases – impossible to ascertain. Generally the most that can be said is that they derive from the workshop, but it should not be forgotten that Bewick himself is unlikely to have been responsible for any bookplate before the end of 1773, since the year before he had complained as an apprentice to Beilby that he remained a stranger to copperplate engraving9.

Apart from Ralph Beilby and Thomas Bewick (and later Robert Bewick), the workshop was characterised by great fluidity in terms of personnel. Apprentices generally signed on for seven years, and were paid wages for the last three years of their term. Some like Abraham Hunter, Mark Lambert and Isaac Nicholson left immediately after their apprenticeship and set up their own engraving workshops in competition. Others such as Charlton Nesbit and Edward Willis continued for a time as journeymen within the workshop. Luke Clennell and William Harvey left Newcastle almost immediately for London, Henry Hole for Liverpool, and William Temple, who had contributed much fine engraving to the Fables of Aesop, abandoned the trade and joined his mother in her linen-drapery business. Henry White came to the workshop from London to complete his apprenticeship following the death of his first master John Lee, afterwards returning to the capital. Ebenezer Landells stayed about one month as an apprentice (thus giving rise to the oft-repeated legend that he was ‘a Bewick apprentice’) but his parents were unable to agree terms with Thomas Bewick and he was subsequently bound to Issac Nicholson. Henry Barnes served three years of his time and then disappeared without trace; Charles Hickson followed the same course, after five years. A few apprentices, such as John Laws, came to specialise in sectors of engraving outside the printed page, such as silver facetting or ‘bright engraving’ as it was then known. In all, upwards of twenty-five apprentices passed through the Beilby-Bewick workshop during the tenure of its existence. Remarkably the majority could later lay claim to greater or lesser degrees of distinction10.

Nevertheless, even with this retinue of workshop apprentices, engraving was occasionally farmed out to other workshops or engravers. The lack of control over who actually engraved their orders was a sore point with many customers, not perhaps for those who merely ordered an invoice heading, engraved thimble or dog collar, but certainly aggravating for local publishers such as Sarah Hodgson whose publications had much to gain from illustrations by Thomas Bewick himself. She made no bones about her expectations, on at least one occasion emphasizing he should “finish the job in the most masterly manner you can and do it all yourself. I must have TB in the corner”11. Though this letter is good-humoured enough, Sarah Hodgson was not the easiest person in the world with whom to rub shoulders, a trait she shared with Bewick. Not surprisingly, they fell out in 1803 in a blistering (and publicly aired) disagreement over the copyright of the Quadrupeds.

Bewick himself was well aware of the central role he played in the workshop, and of his customers’ anxieties. In 1804, having finished the Water Birds, he proclaimed for their benefit that he was “now more at Liberty than before” and would be “better enabled to attend to their Orders, which will be always executed with Punctuality and Dispatch, and on the lowest Terms”12.

The ‘farming-out’ of work was intermittent and doubtless pre-dated October 1791 when the London copper engraver James Fittler was contracted to supply ‘Bible plates’ at five guineas apiece13. Although not known to be a relation, another Fittler-William – was occasionally employed as a journey-man engraver in the workshop from early 1790 until April 1792, during the first half of the year following and briefly in the spring of 1799. He also engraved some of the endless succession of Bible plates. Though the archives always refer to him as Fittler this was an assumed name; his real name was Philip Loudon Slager. The reason for his alias is not clear14. Both Beilby and Bewick put their names to these plates, later reprinted in Newcastle as Ostervald’s edition but had no direct hand in the engraving being by that time fully engrossed in work upon the Land Birds,15 eventually published in 1797. Between August 1797 and February 1798 and again from November 1810 to February 1811 Bewick employed – possibly in the latter period out of charity – his old friend the Newcastle copper engraver John Andrews Kidd, who had been a close neighbour in St. Nicholas’ Churchyard. Kidd died a few months later of an overdose of brandy and laudanum,16 not long after etching a plate of Newton Hall for the Revd Joseph Cook*. Most of the contracted-out work later went to ex-apprentice Isaac Nicholson17, whose workshop, again in St Nicholas’ Churchyard, was literally a stone’s throw from Bewick’s. These orders were usually – but not always – far from prestigious.

The problems of attribution posed by known engravers such as J. A. Kidd and Isaac Nicholson pale into insignificance alongside the body of work produced by a predominantly motley collection of peripatetic jobbing engravers who were countenanced by the workshop when it was short-handed or busily engaged on a project such as the Fables of Aesop from 1814 to 1818. Their skills varied enormously. Some were already acquainted with Thomas Bewick. Robert, the elder brother of painter William Nicholson* (no relation to Isaac) had been apprenticed to Ralph Beilby’s ex-apprentice Abraham Hunter, and he appeared in the workshop as a printer in the press room between 1801–6. His most important function seems to have been refurbishing the copperplate illustrations for Ostervald’s Bible, which was continuously at press in those years. However he executed small commissions as a journeyman engraver, most notably the bookplates of John Urpeth Rastrick* and John Harrison*, before moving to Hull18. Similarly there was Thomas Ranson – a cut above the rest – who had been apprenticed to Kidd, and later engraved a fine portrait of Bewick. He helped out occasionally between 1806 and 180919. There was William Pybus, employed from time to time between April 1825 and June 182820, who later started his own workshop in St. Nicholas’ Churchyard. Much more of an unknown quantity was Paul Wray who turned up first in June 1797 as a “Private in the Westminster Militia” and worked on and off until July 1798 (which coincided with the publication of Bewick’s Land Birds), reappeared briefly during February and March 1816, returned for two days in June 1818, and finally disappeared in August the following year with a few shillings’ charity in his otherwise empty pockets21. And what of James Gastineau of 1816, Mr Couth of 1817, or Mr. Dick of 1821?22. They represented a veritable army of journeymen engravers plying their trade the length and breadth of Britain. If they failed to get work at the engraving shop they were rarely turned away empty-handed; a threepenny bit or sixpenny piece was usually thrust into their palms to help them on their way, for as Thomas Bewick knew, there but for the grace of God went he.

Obviously work on the Quadrupeds, Birds and Fables of Aesop exercised Bewick’s mind more than any other matter. The first two titles were in a constant state of revision from the time they were first published but the Fables, unaffected by the new enthusiasm for natural history, slightly old-fashioned and less ‘fresh’ in approach, only ran to two editions. Responsibility for Quadrupeds and Birds rested largely on Bewick’s shoulders. He, after all, was the only naturalist (albeit self-taught) in the workshop, the only person capable of corresponding with such luminaries as Thomas Pennant and Sir Joseph Banks.

The critical and financial success of the Quadrupeds and Birds kept the workshop on an even keel at a time when other engravers and publishing houses found themselves in grave danger of going under. Robert Pollard, a boyhood friend and lifelong correspondent of Bewick’s, had left Newcastle for the London engraving trade as a young man. Though blessed with early success he found himself in dire financial straits between 1805–16, a time when the London publishing houses of Vernor and Hood, and John Wallis of Ludgate Hill both went bankrupt within a year of each other, owing the Bewick workshop considerable amounts of money. The workshop however, despite the occasional year of “many and sad losses in trade”23, sailed on more or less profitably.

As he increasingly withdrew from day-to-day engraving of items such as bookplates, Bewick understandably preferred to concentrate his abilities on his published works. This can clearly be seen during 1824 when he was busy on several projects close to his heart. Most important of these was the forthcoming edition of the Birds, which Bewick believed was his last opportunity to perfect its shape, form and content. Accordingly he substantially re-wrote the text, engraved many new figures, and classified the birds on a more scientific basis than hitherto. There was also the matter of the editions of the Birds and the Quadrupeds without letterpress, advertised as ‘in the Press’ in May 1824, but actually published in the summer of 182524, and aimed at a genteel readership of well-to-do amateur naturalists25. Bewick’s customary attention to detail, especially in printing from his woodblocks, required constant attendance at Edward Walker’s printing house to ensure these ‘showcase’ editions of his most important works were an appropriate memorial. In addition there was the long overdue History of British Fishes which continued to gnaw at his conscience.

Little wonder then that orders for bookplates were refused. Approached in 1824 by attorney John Russell Rowntree of Stockton upon Tees for a bookplate, Bewick replied: “I am sorry I cannot undertake the execution of this Book Cut, as I am so busily engaged with my own works (Birds, Fishes & Vignettes) that I have not a moment to spare and have for some time back been obliged to decline all the orders of my Friends in that way … ”26.

Later the same year, William Wills, the radical solicitor of Colmore Row, Birmingham (and friend of Bewick’s admirer, John Dovaston of Westfelton) resorted to doubtless sincere flattery in a vain attempt to persuade Bewick to cut him a bookplate: “I have received the books I requested Mr. Dovaston to procure for me; – and cannot resist the opportunity of expressing my admiration of their very beautiful illustrations … some of your blocks I have seen in the hands of the late Mr. Barber’s family – If it be your practice to execute such designs, I should be obliged, by a block or two, engraved with some natural scenery of figures and my name on a Tablet, or other object, for pasting in my books.”27. Alas, no such block was cut.

Nevertheless questions remain as to why the work was not farmed out, for Bewick was not known for turning orders away from the workshop. Though there is no clear explanation, both bookplates were personal requests and he probably felt he could not – in all honesty – palm them off onto another engraver. They were also finite in the sense that they were unlikely to lead to further orders.

Lest that seem too hard, take the case of William Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine cover in comparison. In June of 1824 (not long after August 1823 when Bewick had been lionised in Edinburgh28), Blackwood ordered a portrait of George Buchanan to be cut within a wood engraved border. Here was an order from a well-known publisher with perhaps many more such requests in the offing, and it proved irresistible. Up to a point that is, for the work was immediately farmed out to Isaac Nicholson, who charged the workshop £3, which in turn invoiced Blackwood for five guineas29. As it happened, no more work flowed in from that quarter, though “Christopher North” contributed a long encomium on Bewick to the magazine the following year30.

Having examined the problem of satisfactorily identifying the exact authorship of individual book-plates, and concluding that this is rarely possible, a brief examination of the terminology employed in the workshop records to denote a bookplate may be of value. Perhaps inevitably, there exists no single standard description. Variations include “Wood Cut for Books, Vignette on Copper for Books, Device on Copper for Books, Arms on a plate for Books”; sometimes the function is not mentioned and the work simply catalogued as “Wood Cut” or “Crest on Wood”.

Occasionally bookplates were simply adaptations of plates engraved for other purposes. That for the Revd Christopher Benson* of Newcastle was engraved as a visiting card, but was also run off on thin paper as a book label. Similarly the bookplate for Wiliam Cramlington* started life as a colliery receipt bill. Others – such as that for Joseph Garnett* – had multiple functions as trade cards and invoice headings.

As well as changes in function, bookplates occasionally underwent rapid changes of identity. Several of the Crawhalls seem to have shared a bookplate, which was then re-engraved with attorney Samuel Thompson’s* name. A Similar image for the Newcastle brushmaker (and great friend of Bewick), William Maving* was also shared by Thomas Carr* and Robert Ferguson*. Whilst these plates were copper-engraved and thus easily altered, problems occurred with modifying wood-engraved bookplates. The celebrated Cotes ‘fishing scene’ bookplate was originally cut for surgeon John Murray*. His name was excised and that of Cotes rather carelessly engraved in its place. Finally it made an entrance as a vignette in the first (1804) and subsequent editions of the Water Birds. Some twenty years later a wood-engraved bookplate for merchant John Anderson* of St. Petersburg, also ended up in harness as a vignette, this time in later editions of the Land Birds. Though the full name was erased, the ‘on’ of Anderson and ‘h’ of St. Petersburgh (as it was then spelt) can still be discerned. The slovenliness of finishing evident in both these cases is inexplicable.