Thomas Bewick's Master
It was a happy event for Newcastle when William Beilby, a Scarborough silversmith, failing in business at Durham, brought his family to the banks of the Tyne, and endeavoured among the nobility and gentry of Northumberland, and the merchants and tradesmen of Newcastle and Gateshead, to woo fickle fortune anew. A happy event because William Beilby's sons and daughters were gifted beyond the common run of people in their social position, and had the happy faculty of endowing other young men and women with their own tastes for intellectual pursuits, and with some share of their own devotion to the study and practice of art. Richard, the eldest son, had served an apprenticeship to a die-sinker, or seal engraver, at Birmingham; William, the second son, had learned enamelling and painting at the same place; Ralph, who was a skilful musician, had been brought up to his father's trade of a silversmith and jeweller, and had acquired the art of seal-cutting from Richard; Thomas and Mary were taught enamelling and painting by William, and gave lessons in drawing. Thus music, drawing, engraving, and enamelling had each its representative in the household, contributing to the resources of the family, and giving an impulse to the cultivation of art in Newcastle, which was genuine and effective while it lasted, and useful long after.
The Beilbys lived at Gateshead, where the father carried on his business, and where he and his son Richard died. The mother and the daughters opened a school after the father's death, and the sons assisted in keeping the family circle together. An opportunity occurred about this time for Ralph to commence business on his own account, and he was not slow to take advantage of it. An engraver named Jameson, who carried on a respectable trade in Newcastle, was charged with committing a forgery upon the Old Bank, and was tried for the crime. The evidence was insufficient to convict him, but his character was destroyed and he left the town. Ralph Beilby started a workshop directly afterwards and obtained the patronage and support which Jameson had forfeited. Presently his mother and sister gave up the school at Gateshead and came to Newcastle to keep house for him; the brothers joined them, and assisted in the workshop; copper-plate printing (introduced into the town, as already described, by Joseph Barber) was added to seal engraving and the marking of plate; and in a short time a substantial business was built up.
During the summer of 1767, Ralph and William Beilby, being at Bywell on a visit to the widow of the Rev. Mr. Simons, one of the vicars of that place, were told of a young genius, her godson, whose passion for drawing pictures upon gravestones and flagstones and the walls of houses could not be repressed, and whose future life it was desirable to fix. They were so much interested in her account of him that they set off with the old lady and her daughter to visit his parents, who were living at Cherryburn, near Eltringham, on the other side of the water. This visit turned out more important than any of them imagined. They were pleased with Mrs. Simons' godson, and he was delighted with them. Before they left the house it was arranged that he should enter the workshop of the Beilbys on trial, with a view to apprenticeship. The probation was satisfactory to both parties. On the 1st of October, indentures were signed which bound Ralph Beilby, at his house near Amen Corner, facing St. Nicholas' Churchyard, to teach the art of engraving to Thomas Bewick.
Most of that which is known respecting Ralph Beilby comes to us through Thomas Bewick's Autobiography. "The first jobs I was put to do," writes Bewick, "was blocking out the wood about the lines on the diagrams (which my master finished) for the 'Ladies' Diary,' on which he was employed by Charles Hutton, and etching sword blades for William and Nicholas Oley, sword manufacturers, etc., at Shotley Bridge. It was not long till the diagrams were wholly put into my hands to finish. After these I was kept closely employed upon a variety of other jobs, for such was the industry of my master that he refused nothing, coarse or fine. He undertook everything, which he did in the best way he could. He fitted-up and tempered his own tools, and adapted them to every purpose, and taught me to do the same. This readiness brought him in an overflow of work, and the workplace was filled with the coarsest kind of steel stamps, pipe moulds, bottle moulds, brass clock faces, door plates, coffin plates, bookbinders' letters and stamps, steel, silver, and gold seals, mourning rings, etc. He also undertook the engraving of arms, crests, and cyphers on silver, and every kind of job from the silversmiths; also engraving bills of exchange, bank-notes, invoices, account-heads, and cards. These last he executed as well as did most of the engravers of the time, but what he excelled in was ornamental silver engraving. In this, as far as I am able to judge, he was one of the best in the kingdom."
In wood-engraving Mr. Beilby was not so fortunate. Bewick states that what he did was wretched. He did not like the work, but was forced into it by a desire to oblige Dr. Charles Hutton, who designed bill-heads for him, writing with an ink or preparation which was easily transferred to the copper. The doctor procured boxwood from London, with the necessary tools for cutting it, and tried to interest his friend in the operation, but nothing of the kind had been executed in Newcastle before, and Beilby was too old to learn; Bewick, however, took kindly to the work, and soon became an adept. Dr. Hutton used to say with pride that it was he who really taught wood-engraving to Bewick, and enabled the firm of Beilby to undertake that class of art workmanship in Newcastle.
In 1777, Beilby took his former apprentice into partnership, and in 1780 he married, his wife being Ellen, daughter of John Hawthorn, of Newcastle, watchmaker. Beilby looked after the engraving on silver, etc.; Bewick developed the engraving on wood, and between them they obtained a large and remunerative connection. In 1785 Bewick commenced to engrave blocks for a "History of Quadrupeds," and Mr. Beilby, "being of a bookish or reading turn," employed his evenings at home in writing the descriptive matter. They were then living, Beilby in West Spital Tower, newly turned into a dwelling-house, and Bewick in a house at the Forth which had been tenanted by Dr. Hutton, part of whose furniture he had purchased. The book was published in 1790, and sold rapidly. It was followed by a "History of British Birds," the first volume of which came out in 1797, and was eagerly purchased. To this volume also Mr. Beilby compiled the letterpress, and it was his last effort of that kind. He had for some time been in partnership with a firm of watch-glass manufacturers in Dean Court; and as soon as the first volume of the Birds was issued he gave up the engraving business altogether, dissolved his connection with Bewick, and devoted himself to the glass factory. In this new undertaking he was equally enterprising and successful. When their premises were destroyed by fire in 1806 the firm erected a new manufactory in Orchard Street, and added to their production of watch-glasses the making of clock-work. He continued in that business till the infirmities of age overtook him, and he sought in retirement the repose to which an unusually active and busy life entitled him.
Ralph Beilby's fame has been overshadowed by that of his apprentice and partner, and his attainments have received less recognition than they deserved. For he was undoubtedly a man of genius, with great originality and force of character. To the manners and polish of a gentleman, he added social qualities which endeared him to a select and intelligent circle. Among his most intimate friends was the Rev. John Brand, the historian of Newcastle, some of whose letters to him, referring chiefly to the engraving of plates for the History, form one of the tracts of the Newcastle Typographical Society. He was an ardent Churchman, and followed the good old practice of attending his place of worship twice every Sunday, taking his household with him. To this habit there was perhaps a secondary inducement in his love of music, for he was a capable musician, a companion of the younger Avisons, and a performer at some of those local concerts by which unfortunate Dr. Brown, when Vicar of Newcastle, strove to improve musical taste and encourage musical education in the town. His literary acquirements, if not great, were respectable, and, delighting himself in the companionship of books, he was energetic in the encouragement of habits of reading and reflection in others. The formation of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle had his warmest support. He was one of its founders, acted as a member of the managing committee for many years, and remained one of its most ardent friends to the day of his death. He died on the 4th of January, 1817, in the 74th year of his age, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Andrew, where there is a tombstone to his memory.
Source: Men of Mark 'twixt Tyne and Tweed: A-C - Richard Welford - 1895