The History of British Birds is the best-known work of Thomas Bewick, an 18th-century wood engraver famed for his finely-detailed, imaginative illustrations. Bewick’s revolutionary technique and artistic skill are said to have revived the medium of wood-engraving at this time.
The History of British Birds examines each major British bird species, with detailed written observations and precise engravings. But the book also contains unusual ‘tail-pieces’ – small images often no bigger than a coin that fill the available space at the end of a chapter. These images depict a wide range of subjects, from innocent scenes of rural life to bizarre and disturbing fantasies featuring drunks, fools and devils.
How was Bewick viewed by his contemporaries?
Readers in the 19th century drew delight and inspiration from The History of British Birds’ life-like quality and the creative detail in the ‘tail-pieces’. Bewick’s equally famous contemporary, John James Audubon, said of him:
Look at his tail-pieces, Reader, and say if you ever saw so much life represented before, from the Glutton, who precedes the Great Black-backed Gull, to the youngsters flying their kite; the disappointed sportsman, who, by killing a magpie, has lost a woodcock; the horse endeavouring to reach the water; the bull roaring near the stile; or the poor beggar attacked by the rich man's mastiff.
Where does The History of British Birds appear in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre?
The Brontë children treasured their copy of this book, using it both as a drawing manual – diligently copying its illustrations – and weaving its evocative ideas into their literature.
In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Bewick’s two volumes provide Jane with an imaginative escape from her bullying cousins and aunt at Gateshead. Although the text and images transport Jane to 'strangely impressive' worlds, their uncanny paranormal elements frighten her and foreshadow future encounters with the supernatural. Jane is particularly drawn to the allegorical vignettes depicted in Bewick’s tail-pieces. Each extract and engraving to which Jane makes reference can be viewed here.
Jane Eyre draws on bird imagery throughout. Of particular note are the avian metaphors used by Jane and Rochester Jane as dove, linnet, skylark, Rochester as eagle, cormorant – which mirror the characteristics Bewick attributes to those birds.