RICHARD WILLIAMSON: A whole world lies unopened

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A funny thing happened to me as I did the water birds’ count last month at Fishbourne Channel. Seeing my binoculars a lady asked me if I could point out some BURWICK swans.

She had heard about these on the BBC TV news channel, regarding the recent flight with the swans from Russia by a scientist from Slimbridge during their migration. “I think you mean BEWICK’S swans,” said I. “Oh well, that’s what the news reader called them: Burwick swans.”

Poor old Thomas Bewick (1752-1828) would have turned in his grave. How could the BBC make such a howler? Regrettably, names of birds, butterflies, trees, and flowers, are often just not in the public domain despite mass publicity by wildlife charity groups such as RSPB, BTO, and County Trusts. For most people, a whole world lies unopened on their doorsteps.

So; let us focus on just one mis-named bird this week, and its God-father, Thomas Bewick (which rhymes with suet and do-it). He was more or less the very first bird artist and here are two of his engravings.

Among Bewick’s admirers was 16-year-old Charlotte Bronte who wrote a poem in appreciation of the master-engravers’ illustrations. Lord Tennyson wrote a tribute to the artist in his own copy of Bewick’s History of British Birds. Ruskin likened the artwork to that of Holbein and Turner.

Bewick was famous 200 years ago and remains so today, with modern biographies praising his ground-breaking skills. He began his career as a small child, fascinated by the natural world around him and also by carving pictures of country life on wood blocks.

Whereas most wood-engravers then used the easy method of going with the grain, Bewick cut against the grain, developing ultra-fine steel tools which made perfect accuracy of minutae such as distant trees in a winter landscape. Box wood is the best for this sort of detail, being as hard as ivory.

It was also available from the English countryside. His bird and mammal pictures were accurate and so were his observations on the vagaries of rural life, with his scenes that included people and farm animals, cottages and churches, woods and streams. I suppose the nearest comparison of recent times is the best work of Charles Tunnicliffe.

It is said that Bewick’s finest work of all is a wood-engraving called The Chillingham Bull, carved on a rectangular block almost 7 x 10 inches. I find the magpie hard to beat, shown here on a print made at Amberley Industrial Museum on their old printing machine.

As for the Bewick’s swan; well that bird was given the name as a tribute by the famous ornithologist William Yarrell two years after Bewick’s death, and it has remained ever since. That TV howler is on a par with another last autumn when a reporter told us that: ‘Beatrix Potter stayed in this hotel when he visited Exeter some time ago.’