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  • Saturdays and Sundays
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Thomas Bewick: The Workshop at 16 St Nicholas Churchyard

Marketing Intern Katie Wright has been researching the life of Thomas Bewick and his association with the Cathedral.

Thomas Bewick was a North East printmaker who is widely recognised for his unique technique in wood engraving and fascinating illustrations of the natural world. For most of his career, his workshop overlooked the churchyard of St Nicholas’ Parish Church: now Newcastle Cathedral.

Early life and childhood

Bewick was born on the 11 August 1753, at Cherryburn, Mickley village. He was the oldest of eight children and his parents were tenant farmers. He grew up in the countryside of the Tyne Valley and was educated in Ovingham, a village nearby to his home. From an early age, he developed a fascination with the natural world.

Image – Bewick’s home at Cherryburn, now owned by the National Trust (courtesy of Bewick Society)

Bewick becomes an apprentice in Newcastle

In 1767, at the age of 14, Bewick became an apprentice to Ralph Beilby. Beilby’s workshop was located on Amen Corner, facing the south side of Newcastle Cathedral (known as St Nicholas Parish Church until 1882). He would live on the edge of the churchyard on and off for about 10 years and remain there for most of his working life.

In the first three years of Bewick’s apprenticeship, from 1767 – 1770, he would have been able to hear Charles Avison’s organ playing from St Nicholas’. Avison remains one of the region’s most well-known composers and organists.

Image – Watercolour by Robert Johnson (courtesy of Laing Art Gallery)

In 1770, Bewick had his first illustrations published in Charles Hutton’s book, ‘Treatise of Mensuration.’ This book featured an illustration of the Cathedral’s Lantern Tower.

Notably during his apprentice years, at the age of 18, the Tyne flood swept away the four arches of the Tyne bridge in 1771. It was thought that Bewick was one of those who rowed over the flooded Sandhill, trying to save lives and property.

After seven years, Bewick completed his apprenticeship and became an accomplished engraver – particularly skilled with box wood. In 1775, Bewick received a prize from the ‘Royal Society of Arts Manufactures and Commerce’ for a wood engraving titled ‘The Huntsman and the Old Hound’.

Image – The Lantern Tower, illustrated in ‘Treatise of Mensuration’ (courtesy of Bewick Society)

Life after the apprenticeship

Bewick decided to try his luck in London after completing his apprenticeship and travelled there in 1776. He could have easily set up a workshop there but disliked the social and political climate of the city. After staying there for eight months, he returned home to Newcastle.

After some time, Bewick decided to begin a partnership with Ralph Beilby at his premises on Amen Corner. Their partnership would go on to last 20 years (1777 – 1797).

Image – Thomas Bewick’s workshop (courtesy of Bewick Society)

Thomas Bewick’s career at St Nicholas’ Churchyard

Across the workshop’s existence (both the earlier one at Amen Corner and the newer premises bought later), there were a total of 30 apprentices. One of these was Bewick’s son, Robert Elliot Bewick.

A wall memorial to engraver and artist William Harvey, a former apprentice of Bewick, can be found in the Cathedral near the Collingwood memorial.

Image – ‘The Master Engraver – Thomas Bewick in his Workshop’ by John Eyre, 1896 (courtesy of Laing Art Gallery)

Bewick, mostly, took the same route to work each day from his ‘little happy Cot at the Forth,’ (his cottage) bought in 1781. His route was as follows:

From Forth Lane, he’d walk to Westgate Street, up to St John’s Lane and down to the Bigg Market. He’d then walk along the Groat Market, finally bringing him to his workshop in the St Nicholas Churchyard.

In 1790, Beilby and Bewick bought new premises at 16 St Nicholas Churchyard, in the south east end of the Churchyard for £100 and soon left the premises on Amen Corner.

Image – A map of Newcastle Upon Tyne by William Hutton, 1770 (courtesy of Bewick Society)

The partnership between Bewick and Beilby broke down after Bewick’s controversial publishing of ‘A History of British Birds’ in 1797. While Beilby made a few contributions to the book, it had been mostly Bewick’s work, despite the plan for Beilby to write the text for the book. After Bewick’s decision to publish the book with only his name on it, having done all the engravings and written the text himself, there was dispute over the authorship.

Beilby left the workshop in January 1789 – Bewick had to pay £20 for Lawyer’s fees and £21 for Beilby’s workshop equipment – a total of £40,000 (in today’s money). After the breakdown of the partnership, Bewick continued independently with success until Bewick’s apprentice and son, Robert Elliot Bewick, became Bewick’s new partner in 1812.

The workshop at St Nicholas’ Churchyard would go on to outlive Bewick and be taken over by his eldest son, Robert.

Image – Thomas Bewick by James Ramsay, oil on canvas, 1823 | NPG 319 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Bewick’s life away from the workshop

In 1786 he married his wife, Isabella Elliot of Ovingham and had 4 children, born from 1787 – 1793. In 1812, Bewick’s health deteriorated, made worse by the pollution of the early Industrial Revolution in Newcastle. In that same year, he and his family moved to a newly built house with a large garden in Back Lane, Gateshead, away from his cottage in Central Newcastle. He had a small workshop in the house, having passed his business onto his son, Robert, in 1825.

Image – Thomas Bewick by Frederick Bacon, after James Ramsay, line engraving, 1852 | NPG D31747 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Bewick’s last piece of work was a wood engraving based on a sketch from his apprentice years. It depicted a skeletal horse standing by a tree stump –reflective of his sombre state of mind in his final days. The piece, entitled ‘Waiting for Death,’ was published by his son, Robert in 1832. Bewick died at his home on 8 November 1828 and was buried next to his wife Isabella who had died two years previously.

His children continued to live in the family home, distributing his work. His last surviving daughter, Isabella, produced his memoirs before passing away in 1883. His legacy goes on so much further as he is internationally known for his work which can be found in the V&A Museum, The British Library, The University of Chicago Library, Wordsworth Trust in Cumbria, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums (Laing Art Gallery) and Cherryburn (his home as a child) as well a few more locations.

Image – ‘Waiting for Death’ by Thomas Bewick (courtesy of Bewick Society)

What happened to the workshop?

It is thought that in early 1849, Robert Elliot Bewick left the premises at 16 St Nicholas Churchyard (although it is unknown if he left earlier than this date). It was not until 1858 that a new tenant moved in after a free-hold agreement was made with the vestrymen of St Nicholas’. The Tenant, William Henderson Dawson, was a famed poet and songwriter as well as an established bookbinder from the Groat Market. He occupied the premises until his death in 1879.

After this date, the workshop was used for a number of different purposes, including offices for the Parish overseers of the poor. In 1890, the office was vacated by the Parish overseers. It was taken over by another bookbinder but in 1900, the workshop was threatened by a fire at the Messrs Robinson and Company. The workshop was scorched, badly damaged and scheduled for redevelopment as commercial premises shortly afterwards.

It was bought by the Milburn family, wealthy ship and colliery owners who had visions of creating a vast office block. But on 2 May 1902, tragedy struck when William Telford was found lying dead on the floor, shot through the head. The matter remains a mystery but is likely a deliberate suicide.

This event marks the end of Bewick’s workshop – just one week later a demolition team commenced work on the site of the workshop. Written in the Sunderland Daily Echo (10 May 1902), ‘the erection of the hoarding yesterday shows how soon there will be removed another trace of the former presence of the great engraver in Newcastle’.

Image – Thomas Bewick’s workshop C.1900

Bewick’s legacy

Bewick’s legacy was significant both during his lifetime and today. He developed his own style of engraving and has inspired dozens of artists from his own time and continues to do so today. He was known to be an early campaigner for the fair treatment of animals (which was uncommon for the time) and a pacifist.

The Bewick Society continues to share the impact of his life and legacy today while the National Trust preserves his family home. Streets are named after him, and plaques commemorate his home and workshop.

William Wordsworth began his anecdotal poem ‘The Two Thieves’, composed in 1798, with the line “O now that the genius of Bewick were mine”, in which case he would give up writing, he declared. William Howitt, an author that he worked with, simply described him as, “a truly original genius”.

Image – On the original site of the workshop at 16 St Nicholas Churchyard, there is a bronze statue in honour of Bewick along with a plaque. If you visit the Cathedral’s terrace, look around for the statue, visible from the seating area.