Towards the end of his life, in the years between Waterloo and Catholic Emancipation, the Northumbrian wood-engraver Thomas Bewick began to write an autobiography. Looking back to his boyhood in Cherryburn, upriver from Newcastle, he gave a personal and verbal counterpart to the little scenes of rural life which delighted readers of his two major books, A General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and The History of British Birds (two parts, 1797 and 1804). Had Bewick simply issued these books with the engravings of animals and birds, we would doubtless admire them still, as naturalists and country gentlemen immediately did, for their information, both visual and verbal, was the best of its kind available. It is not the main subjects of each page that made Bewick’s work so deeply loved, however, but the tailpieces, appearing after nearly every entry in British Birds, that enable us to enter late Georgian rural England and enter the mind of Charlotte Brontë, as a shortsighted twelve-year-old, finding the solace in them that she later allowed Jane Eyre to find, hidden behind curtains in the library at Gateshead Hall.
The tailpieces were entirely gratuitous, but since Bewick was his own master in the business, there was nobody to prevent their inclusion. There is no mistaking the pleasure and love that is in them, not excluding social and political satire. The bigger engravings of animals and birds, always positioned in