- A General History of Quadrupeds: The Figures Engraved on Wood by Thomas Bewick
Thomas Bewick (1753–1828), the master illustrator and wood engraver from Newcastle upon Tyne, is known primarily for his History of British Birds (1797–1804), which inspired John James Audubon in 1829 to name a species of wren after the artist (Bewick’s Wren [Thryomanes bewickii]); the following year, William Yarrell bestowed a similar honor in naming Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus bewickii). Astute readers may also recall the passage in the first chapter of Charlotte Brontë’s Jayne Eyre in which the young eponymous heroine delights in Bewick’s description of the “haunts of sea-fowl” on the Norwegian coast.
Less well known is Bewick’s A General History of Quadrupeds. Published in 1790, the work appeared two years after the death of the celebrated French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count of Buffon (1707–1788). Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, published by the Imprimerie royale, had been a veritable best-seller since 1749, with its thirty-six in-quarto volumes translated into several languages, including English and Dutch. When Bewick undertook to provide his own illustrated guide for English readers, which he hoped would be the most complete and “scientifically” accurate work at the time, he could not have ignored the volume of naturalist knowledge that Buffon had produced over the previous four decades.
The manner in which Bewick refers to the author of Histoire naturelle is therefore somewhat puzzling. His explicit references are primarily limited to the titles of Buffon’s articles on animal descriptions, and these include several spelling errors that betray a less than perfect mastery of the French language: “Le Dain [sic]” (143); “Le Glutton [sic]” (285); “Le Poulatouche [sic]” (394). A General History of Quadrupeds [End Page 79] also contains a few obvious mistranslations, such as when Bewick offers “The Wallachian Sheep” (73) as the English equivalent of an enigmatic “Chevre de Crete [sic]”—a perplexing oversight, since the naturalist from Montbard had clearly specified in the third volume of the Supplément à l’Histoire naturelle (1776) that a drawing depicting this ovine species (“Valachian Eve [sic]”), sent by one Mr. Colinson of the Royal Society of London, had served as a model for Jacques De Sève’s plate VIII entitled “Brebis valachienne” (SHN, 3: 74). In this instance, Bewick not only displays poor translation skills, he commits an inexcusable interspecific error by transforming a sheep into a goat. He repeats the offence when he offers “Ternate bat” (518) as the English term not only for Linnaeus’s “Vespertilio Vampyrus”—a carnivorous bat that feeds on blood—but also for Buffon’s innocuous, fruit-eating “Roussette.”
Many of the texts in Bewick’s work are implicit, rather dry translations of Buffon’s own preambles: see, for example, “The Horse” (1); “The Camel” (150); “The Elephant” (186); “The Tiger” (206); and “The Mole” (413). A General History of Quadrupeds contains approximately two hundred engravings, and here it can be said that Bewick raised the art of wood engraving to new heights. He worked with hardwood, engraving “with the grain” and employing fine tools similar to those used in metal engraving. Nevertheless, the images fall short artistically and scientifically, especially when compared with the plates of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle and notwithstanding the claims of the editor, who praises, on the back cover of this reprint, the English engraver as “one whose influence on natural history and book printing still endures today.” A few examples bear mentioning: the hindquarters of the “Lancashire Ox” (35) are depicted at far too steep an angle; the proportions of the giraffe’s neck are less than precise (“The Cameleopard” ); the head on “The Sloth” (496) resembles a copy of a Renaissance drawing; and “The Orang-Outang” displays a distinctly humanized posture, reflecting the fact that “The Wild Man of the Woods” (452) was still being used as a synonymous expression...