Jenny Uglow is a masterful biographer and historian. She has that ability to so describe a scene, a place, a situation that we are taken beyond the facts into the life behind them.
In this book (Nature’s Engraver: a life of Thomas Bewick). Uglow takes us to my beloved North East, and the Tyne valley as it was in the eighteenth century. Newcastle, then very much unlike now, was a trim, compact town, scattered with gardens and orchards. And into Newcastle comes Thomas Bewick, a farmer’s son who revolutionised wood engraving and influenced book illustration for a century beyond his death. Bewick’s history of British Birds was the first field guide for ordinary people, illustrated by wood cuts of astonishing accuracy and beauty.
Uglow tells this story – a personal story – but also a story of an extraordinarily talented artist. It is readable and splendidly illustrated with Bewick’s wonderful, and often humorous pictures.
I am fascinated by engraving and printed. Reading Uglow’s book takes me to Gregynog – a house in Powys which now is owned and run by the University of Wales Press. I remember a visit there, when, a rather bald curator, was able and willing to show the inner workings of this press. They still produce – though rather limited and very expensive – some wonderful engravings, prints and limited editions of books.
The house dates back to the 1580s and like many houses and estates at the turn of the nineteen hundreds was sold following bankruptcy. The hall was bought by the Davies sisters. It was these remarkable sisters that were intent on making it an arts and crafts centre for Wales, with pottery, weaving, furniture making, silver smithing and the teaching of horticulture. Gregynog Press drew my attention some years – when I picked up a second-hand book printed there in 1929. Between 1923 and 1940 it produced some 42 books and had a reputation for employing some outstanding book binders, wood engravers and printers. The results of this craft and skill are quite exceptional.
Today the old presses still run and the house an annual music festival. Its garden’s, so carefully planned and looked after attract many visitors.
A wonderful hidden discovery – do visit it if you are in or near the area. (University of Wales, Gregynog, Newton, Powys, SY163PW)