I recently had a break in Northumberland and dropped in to see a few favourite haunts as well as some new ones that have been opened since I unaccountably left the region in 1983 to see the Big City.
I should really call it a Road Trip as all the other excitable luvvies do, but it was in fact a holiday and I don’t like pretension.
Cherryburn is a small farm in Northumberland where Thomas Bewick, England’s greatest wood engraver, was born in August 1753. His father was a farmer who also leased a mine, and Thomas was the eldest of his eight children.
As a youth he left Cherryburn to serve an apprenticeship as engraver in Newcastle but he never lost the love of his birthplace and the surrounding countryside. This was still untouched by the awful Industrial Revolution and there were still salmon filling the River Tyne.
If Thatcher had been around then she would certainly have sorted all that out, although Norman Tebbitt would have applauded Bewick’s enthusiasm for getting on his bike to seek work.
When Thomas died he was buried in the parish church of Ovingham where he’d been baptised 75 years earlier.
I’ve always been a great fan of wood engravings, with Albrecht Durer a particular favourite, and I really loved seeing Bewick’s work at Cherryburn, in its original setting in the glorious Northumberland countryside.
There was also a printing workshop in progress but the bloke running it rambled a lot and I had to make my surreptitious escape.
People walked a lot in the 18th century, and while he was doing his apprenticeship in Newcastle he thought nothing of walking the eleven miles back home after a day’s work. When he completed his apprenticeship in 1774 he went back to Cherryburn to live there.
Two years later he walked 500 miles across Scotland in the summer and later that year he visited London, the Great Smog itself. He wasn’t impressed:
‘It appeared to me to be a World of itself where every thing in the extreme, might at once be seen – extreme riches – extreme poverty – extreme Grandeur & extreme wretchedness.’
No change there, then…
He went back to the North East with some relief the next year and this time wisely stayed put. In 1777 he partnered up with his old master for a fruitful two decades.
Bewick made his name producing book illustrations, many of them of wildlife from the countryside he was familiar with. In Jane Eyre, the heroine sits by a window one dreary day with a copy of Bewick’s ‘History of British Birds’ on her lap. Like most of Bewick’s readers, she’s more interested in the little vignettes than in the text. The morbid ones especially seem to chime with her mood:
‘Each picture told a story; mysterious to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet profoundly interesting.’
It was probably his vignette of a suicide that she was looking at:
His most famous wood engraving is however The Chillingham Bull, which celebrates an old North Country strain of wild cattle in the style of a copper engraving, considered more prestigious than the old woodcuts. It’s only 18.4 x 24.7cm but it nevertheless required four boxwood blocks. These were later opened up by being left out in the sun, so perfect original impressions from them are rare. If you have one, get it insured immediately if you don’t have a heart attack first:
Cherryburn was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (spot the Royalist) in 1988. In 1989 it won a Museum of the Year Award in a special category – ‘The Museum achieving the most with the smallest resources’. The Bewick Society was also formed that year to ‘promote an interest in the life and work of Thomas Bewick, the Museum at Cherryburn and related subjects’.
In 1990 the Thomas Bewick Birthplace Trust, having achieved its laudable aims, transferred Cherryburn to the tender and loving care of the National Trust. Since then, the collections of books and original engraved blocks have continued to grow, and have included many retrieved from collectors in the US.