The First Modern Field Guide: Thomas Bewick's A History of British Birds

May 20, 2020

"In early May 1825, near Helpston in Northampstonshire, the poet John Clare saw a small brown bird that he could not identify. Did anyone, he asked his friend Joseph Henderson, have a copy of Bewick’s Birds? All lovers of birds in these years looked to Bewick. He spoke directly to a man like Clare, a former farm worker and lime burner who knew every inch of the fields around his home, and to Henderson, head gardener at the nearby hall." (Uglow, Nature's Engraver pp. xvii-xviii.)

The book that Clare hoped to consult was A History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick, the first modern field guide, originally published in two volumes in 1797 (Land Birds) and 1804 (Water Birds), with a supplement published in 1821. 

Born in 1753, Bewick was raised in the Northumberland countryside, where he developed a deep love of nature and precocious artistic ability. At age thirteen he was apprenticed to the Newcastle engraver Ralph Beilby, where he learned to engrave everything from copper printing plates to decorative objects like clock faces. Around 1766 Beilby began accepting commissions for wood engraved illustrations, introducing Bewick to the illustration style that he would revolutionise. (Below, a portrait of Thomas Bewick painted in 1823 by James Ramsay, now in the National Portrait Gallery.)

In 1777, after a brief period working in London, Bewick set up in partnership with Beilby. Though wood engraving comprised only about 10% of the shop's output, Bewick completed engravings for numerous books, mainly inexpensive children's texts. At the time, wood engraving was considered a cheaper and cruder method of illustration than engraving on copper, which produced finer lines and subtler textures. But Bewick was an innovator, and he began experimenting with new techniques.

"Instead of using wood cut along the grain, he used blocks of wood which had been cut across. This wood was tougher and able to withstand the close cutting required for detailed images. By varying the depth of his cuts, Thomas could create different sections which when inked properly, printed in lighter and darker shades of grey, allowing him to create great depth in his images" (National Trust Biography). End grain wood engravings were also superior in that they could be integrated with metal type, making printing faster and cheaper, and they were more durable, holding up longer under repeated pressings.

Bewick's skill in this type of engraving developed quickly, and his reputation as a master illustrator was cemented by the two works of natural history that he and Beilby published. A General History of Quadrupeds, on land animals, appeared in 1790, followed by the History of British Birds. These two guides were inspired by Bewick's "great dissatisfaction with the crudely illustrated books of his youth" (ODNB)

Bewick's Birds is considered his masterpiece and one of the most important illustrated books of all time. Its success stemmed not only from Bewick's technical proficiency, but his careful observation of both living birds and preserved specimens, and the care with which he depicted them.

"Any comparison of Bewick's work with that of his predecessors makes clear how original it appeared at the time. Not only was there truth in outline and animated posture, but the habitat was beautifully realized. On 13 November 1797 George Allen the antiquary wrote: 'I am in more raptures than I can possibly express … your ingenious Work … will ever remain inimitable and the Standard of the Art'" (ODNB). 

The Birds differed from previous ornithology books in several ways. It was more clearly and accurately illustrated, making visual identification easier, and the approximately 600 illustrations were fresh, rather than being copies of previous engravings. The text was arranged for ease of use. Species were grouped by family, and the section for each species began on its own page with the illustration at the top, followed by the bird's scientific and common names. The text described the bird's appearance and behaviour, citing relevant authorities as well as Bewick's numerous correspondents. This structure, while not entirely original to Bewick, would set the precedent for all future field guides.

Also key to its popularity was the book's size and cost. Bewick's Birds was published in the smaller and less expensive octavo format (1,000 copies in demy octavo, 850 in royal octavo, and 24 in the grand imperial octavo), as opposed to the larger folio format that had often been used for prestigious natural history books. This made the work accessible, both in terms of cost and ease of use. Bewick's Birds was affordable to the middle class and could easily be carried into the field, read by the drawing room fire, or lent to friends.

"In later years the Revd Charles Kingsley wrote, in a letter dated 16 April 1867, of his father's response when a young hunting squire in the New Forest: his neighbours had laughed at him for buying a book about 'dicky birds', but he carried it about with him until their curiosity persuaded them that 'it was the most clever book they had ever seen'"(ODNB).

Another beloved aspect of both the Quadrupeds and the Birds were the miniscule tailpieces depicting rural scenes.

"Apart from lovingly observed landscape settings, the narrative content of many of Bewick's tailpieces is often ironic and displays a mordant view of the world and human folly... The gritty reality of the lives of the crippled old soldiers, road menders, blind beggars, and rain-soaked packmen who inhabit Bewick's landscapes is at odds with the sentimental view of those who now reproduce his work on pots and tea towels" (ODNB).

Other tailpieces were humorous, like this crab claw holding a paintbrush:

And in one case Bewick engraved an image of his own fingerprint. "This is Bewick's mark, drawing attention to the maker. But it is also a clever way of reminding us just how tiny this work of art is: though full of detail it can be covered by a finger. The story is hidden — all we can see is that someone is riding into the shadow, towards the cottage... The image is simple yet playfully ambiguous" (Uglow, p. xvii).

The Birds was an immediate success — the first volume selling out within a year —  and was published in eight editions during its author's lifetime. It was copied by later field guide authors and referenced frequently in literary and popular culture during the 19th century, most famously by Charlotte Bronte. Charlotte and her siblings had copied Bewick's illustrations as children, with Charlotte responding particularly to the tailpieces which depicted "eerie scenes of night and demons... Years later, she gave this vision to her heroine in Jane Eyre, published in 1847. When we first meet Jane, she is a small girl taking refuge in the window seat at Gateshead Hall, clutching a copy of Bewick's Birds. With the curtains screening her from the bully who torments her, and the windows behind her shut against the rain, she can escape, at least in her mind: 'With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy'" (Uglow, p. 318).  

  • The copy of Bewick's Birds used to illustrate this post is a handsomely bound, two volume set of the seventh edition, the last published in Bewick's lifetime and including the artist's final bird engraving, the Cream Coloured Plover. For more details, or to purchase this , see its page in our online shop.