The strange world of 18th century wood engraver Thomas Bewick is brought alive for Terry Grimley.
From time to time Ikon Gallery likes to take a break from its contemporary art brief to glance back at art from the past.
Following exhibitions devoted to the late 19th century German artist Max Klinger and master of the Japanese woodcut, Hiroshige, in the last few years, it has now turned its attention to the late 18th century Northumbrian wood engraver, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828).
It is certainly the first exhibition I can recall at Ikon where magnifying glasses are issued to visitors, so extreme is the miniature scale of this work.
The exhibition focuses on the “tale-pieces” or vignettes with which Bewick adorned his famous illustrated volumes the General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and A History British Birds (1797/1804). Surprisingly, it is the first exhibition anywhere to be devoted to this particular aspect of Bewick’s work.
In his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Ikon director Jonathan Watkins acknowledges a Catalan artist for having drawn his attention to Bewick.
One image that particularly intrigues modern artists is one in which Bewick disconcertingly superimposes his (engraved) thumbprint over a miniature landscape. It is a proto-Surrealist image worthy of Klinger.
Bewick has also recently caught the attention of Jenny Uglow, chronicler of his contemporaries in Birmingham’s Lunar Society. She has written an essay for the catalogue and her biography, Nature’s Engraver, is on sale in the gallery shop.
Apparently a naturally gifted artist who was fortuitously apprenticed to a firm of printers and engravers, Bewick revived the apparently exhausted craft of wood-engraving and thereby became father to its later distinguished tradition through the 19th and 20th centuries, down to the present day.
While his natural history illustrations reflect his love for, and knowledge of, the natural world, the vignettes of rural life with which Bewick supplemented them offer something like a world-view.
His former master turned partner, Ralph Beilby, thought the vignettes could be “construed vulgar by persons of taste and education”, but he need not have worried because it was demand from precisely collectors of this sort which eventually led to them being republished in a volume of their own in 1827.
Explaining the thinking behind them, Bewick wrote: “As instruction is of little avail without constant cheerfulness and occasional amusement, I interspersed the more serious studies with Tale-pieces of gaiety and humour; yet even in these seldom without an endeavour to illustrate some truth, or point some moral.”
Some of the morals are familiar enough. In one scene, an old man contemplates a gravestone on which is inscribed “All is vanity”, while a young boy skips unconcernedly past bowling a hoop.
In another, a donkey scratches its backside on a war memorial while, in an unusually elaborate and poignant scene, an old soldier still wearing his uniform but carrying a hod, with a half-built house in the background, greets an old comrade with a wooden leg.
Bewick’s career coincided with the Industrial Revolution, but it leaves a trace only in one scene, showing trucks on a high-level tramway disgorging coal into ships on the Tyne, against a background of smoking chimneys.
Contemporaries of Bewick’s country folk are battered by the weather in David Cox’s paintings, yet in some ways they seem closer to Breughel’s peasants. This is because Bewick is more interested than Cox in the human condition rather than the climate.
His characters live in a world full of hazards: a bough breaks, pitching a man into a river, while a horse runs away with a cart full of terrified children, pursued by the carter and his dog.
The inhabitants of Hartlepool famously hanged a monkey as a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars.
But that surely cannot have been because they failed to recognise it as a monkey, given the frequency with which this animal recurs in Bewick’s prints, see-sawing on a barrel or contemplating itself in a mirror.
Cruelty towards animals, which Bewick abhorred, is shown as endemic. Cats and dogs are hanged from the branches of trees and a cat in a wash tub is about to be swept out to sea.
Perhaps it is in retribution for something of this kind that a devil whips a man to the gallows in the back of a cart.Most mysterious of all, though, is the image of a man trudging along with a coffin strapped to his back which bears the inscription “A wonderful visit”.
You might struggle to find any connection between Bewick and the work of John Wood and Paul Harrison showing upstairs, unless it is in a certain stoicism with which the artists present themselves in their video works.
Wood and Harrison have been making videos together since 1993, and have the distinction of having had work displayed at No 10 Downing Street as part of the Government Art Collection.
At first sight they could be taken for minimalists of a fairly austere kind. Picking up the flavour of their exhibition’s title, Some Words. Some More Words, the first pieces you encounter are posters with self-referential texts, including the paradoxical no beginning/no middle/no end.
Some of their works deal with simple geometric progressions, but the most interesting pieces are the two video installations.
In one, apparently called Of Knowing Where You Are, the camera pans continuously and at constant speed through a long succession of monochrome rooms, in each of which we glimpse some incident. It is an ambitiously staged piece of video-theatre, inexplicable but remarkably compelling as its long sequence of happenings eventually brings us back to our starting point.
The artists make a brief appearance in this piece, but are much more actively involved in Night and Day, which is basically a set of inventive, variations on a collection of tools and other appliances in a white-painted basement room, punctuated by the switching on and off of a light. It’s well worth seeing, if only for its deadpan humour.
* Thomas Bewick: Tale-pieces and John Wood and Paul Harrison – Some words. Some more words are at Ikon Gallery, Brindleyplace, until May 25 (Tue-Sun 11am-6pm; admission free).