It may be 180 years since the death of the acclaimed engraver Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), but his influence continues to remain. This influence is particularly apparent in David Stewart's new exhibition A Natural History opening at the Gone Tomorrow Gallery on Saturday 26 April.
There are many parallels that can be drawn between these two artists - both hail from Newcastle upon Tyne, both have created intricate and stunning woodblock prints, and both have drawn upon their intimate knowledge of their surrounds to create vignettes of contemporary life. The main difference with Stewart's work is that he draws his influence from London's East End today - a bustling and multicultural society in the midst of major change ahead of the Olympics.
Stewart, like Bewick once did, scours his environment for subject matter, but unlike Bewick (who was fascinated with natural history), Stewart is surrounded by the remnants of our time, such as discarded promotional posters, flyers and leaflets. These each attest to local needs, concerns and aspirations. Stewart's recreations of these flyers in intricate hand-cut woodblock prints are both beautiful and melancholy - aching for earlier glory but seeking new beauty in the cheap throwaway print that he finds discarded in the streets.
His position between homage to Bewick's natural history and that of contemporary London creates an interesting story of change, commerce and cultural shifts. His print Floating Ice of an Iceberg references early exploration, but now also represents climate change. Images of grand houses also illustrate burglar alarms and market driven aspirations.
The woodblock print is the earliest medium of mass produced communication using the simplest, cheapest material and technology available for the equivalents of hand-outs or flyers. Instead of Photoshop the images here are drawn from the originals by hand, cut out of plywood, printed on newsprint and aim to connect older processes, with the same ends in mind, to newer generations.
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