Alvin Balkind Gallery
The Contemporary Art Gallery presents the first exhibition in North America devoted entirely to the vignettes of British wood engraver, artist and naturalist Thomas Bewick. The exhibition is a contemporary look into history, building a bridge between image making techniques and endeavors of different eras.
Born in Cherryburn, near Mickley, Northumberland in 1753, Bewick worked in Newcastle until his death in 1828. Clearly influenced by his childhood on a small farm on the banks of the river Tyne, the son of a tenant farmer and a collier, Bewick’s love of the countryside is reflected in his detailed woodcuts of animals, birds and rural scenes. The vignettes presented here were not originally made to be hung on gallery walls, but published in books about natural history. With his workshop partner, Ralph Beilby, Bewick produced three volumes, his most ambitious projects being illustrations for General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and History of British Birds (two volumes, Land Birds, 1797 and Water Birds 1804). They presented each specimen by describing it in words and illustrating it with a printed image. In the time before photography such hand-made pictures served as scientific evidence. The grand idea of publishing the Quadrupeds and Birds was to give common people access to information, which until then was confined to the “libraries of the wealthy.”
Where there was empty space at the end of a paragraph or the bottom of a page, it was customary to fill it with some ornamental figure, a tailpiece. The ornament, or vignette, could also be placed in the beginning of the paragraph, as a headpiece. These would often depict leaves and foliage, from which the word “vignette” (French “vigne,” vine) is derived, or small decorative objects like oil lamps.
Cut into the end-grain of blocks of box-wood, an exceptionally close-grained hardwood, Bewick’s tale-pieces are necessarily small in size, making us even more aware of the extraordinary skill involved in their production. Bewick recast the art of the tailpiece through his depictions of everyday life in his native Tyne valley. Each represents a part of the world on paper in miniature: it can be a whole landscape with the horizon in the distance, a group of people or a lonely figure in a story. The image is not bound by a frame but integrates with the space of the page.
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. However the tailpieces were marginal in a number of ways: they were executed as an alternative to the day job, and in his books they were fitted around the main content. In contrast to the more systematic, encyclopedic natural histories, with vignettes Bewick was free to develop his own tales the way he wanted them.
As such these narrative works provide an interesting counterpoint to the work of many internationally established artists in Vancouver, engaged in image making that critically examines and reflects on the city and socio-economic conditions which surround them. The presentation of historical work, a first at the CAG, is intended to challenge our understanding of what a contemporary art space should show and as such reinforces the notion that everything was once contemporary, retaining meaning for future generations, just as much as what is contemporary now will inevitably become historical.
Subject to Bewick’s more psychological and sociological scrutiny his 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.” Bewick’s sympathy was on the side of the underprivileged. Many vignettes depict people coping with different situations, often travelling, working, crossing rivers and other obstacles on their way. Bewick’s resentment of human cruelty towards animals and people is clear, signified by the many hanged figures in his works.
Mortality is a subject to which Bewick often returns both as an individual destiny but, through motifs such as military uniforms and memorials, also making wider connections with the restless times of the Napoleonic wars. In one poignant vignette he shows us children dressed in tall hats, holding swords aloft, riding gravestones like hobby-horses. One of his last wood engravings, this time on a larger scale, was entitled Waiting for Death. Bewick depicts an old emaciated horse, weary and exhausted from past labor, standing motionless against the familiar landscape, exposed to the cruel elements and resigned to its fate in the natural order of things.
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.
Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) was a celebrated wood engraver, artist, and naturalist. At the age of fourteen he began a seven-year apprenticeship with an engraving business owned by Ralph Beilby in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. His talent was soon apparent and he began working on book illustrations for publications such as Tommy Trip’s History of Beasts and Birds, Fables by the Late Mr. Gay and Select Fables for Thomas Saint, a Newcastle printer. In 1790 Bewick published General History of Quadrupeds, and as a result of its success went on to publish two volumes of History of British Birds.