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Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) was the foremost wood engraver not only of his generation, but of all subsequent generations, and the quality of his work has remained unsurpassed. His extraordinary woodcuts of animals and birds made him famous, and he dramatically influenced the development of the illustrated book in both England and America. Yet Bewick was no isolated creative genius toiling in an artists atelier, but a trade engraver in the heart of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, working at the very moment when the Industrial Revolution was beginning to change the world. His was an exceptional artistic talent, yet his trade engraving shop was tasked with similar commissions to those offered to hundreds of other similar businesses the length and breadth of the kingdom, catering for their local customers. Bewicks own talent, however, meant that he approached the trade commissions with his own particular flair and originality, creating many commercial works that are very little known.
The British Museum holds an unrivalled collection of Bewicks works, including those from his commercial ventures, and Thomas Bewick: Graphic Worlds celebrates the skill of the artist by presenting sixty engravings, some never published before, and by offering a historical perspective. Bewick made important but even today often unrealised contributions to the development of what we would today call graphic design. From the Victorian times onwards, his work was often separated from his commercial world and he was regarded as an artist-naturalist rather than the artist-craftsman he actually was. Thomas Bewick: Graphic Worlds takes an original approach by addressing this balance for the first time, and places Bewick at the centre of English commercial life in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.