On Meeting Mr Bewick in Northern Spirit Gallery, The Laing
Before beginning my PhD investigation into the engravings of Thomas Bewick - funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council - it felt important to somehow introduce myself to the man. It happened in the same place I first encountered his work, during the 2009's IKON Tale-Pieces exhibition held at Newcastle's own Laing Gallery.
That exhibition was very much an accidental discovery and once opened, the door has never since closed. Magnifying glass in hand, I was happily examining, wincing, smirking and puzzling at the tiny engravings. Hours later, I had a notebook full of strange lines on what I had seen when peaking through these tiny windows of eighteenth and nineteeth-century North East England that Bewick so beautifully engraved onto boxwood, inked and printed.
IKON displayed the prints immaculately. I cannot stress enough how important it is to encounter work in the right context. To give these miniature prints room to breathe is to highlight their importance and value alongside larger oils in the rooms beside. The experience of moving from one tale-piece to another in that softly lit room has occupied a space in my mind for many years and will for years to come.
Visiting the Laing again recently, it was a great joy to be greeted by a smiling portrait of Thomas Bewick with dog at his side. June Holme's study The Many Faces of Bewick (2007) confirms that this isn't Bewick's own sheepdog Cheviot nor Witch who feature adoringly in other works but is a visiting dog Don, the pet of bookseller Emerson Charnley.
The portrait, by William Nicholson, is displayed in the Artists and the Community collection which shows paintings by a range of artists who document the lives of Northern workers, from fisher folk to sailors and miners. As a tradesman, Bewick trained to become an engraver beside the River Tyne and his work was very much in demand. You can get up close to original examples of his woodblocks and view key books that feature the engravings in the functional context of their intended pages.
Locals to Tyneside and beyond must come to the Laing if only to see this captivating painting. If you do, look out for the poised pencil Bewick holds in his right hand. It's a hand many of us would love to shake.