by Martin Hasted
The Wordsworth Trust is home to a vast treasure trove of documents extending beyond just the work of Wordsworth himself. Amongst this collection are kept the letters and notes of the engraver Thomas Bewick. These letters reveal all the little details about Bewick’s life, ranging from letters to and from his business associates to personal letters to his family and friends, before culminating in the letters of his daughter as she attempted to hold her father’s collections together after his death.
One of my roles as a trainee at the Wordsworth Trust has been the cataloguing of this collection of letters in order to make them accessible to future researchers. This cataloguing process has two elements: cataloguing to allow future research, and cataloguing to establish the physical condition of the manuscripts with future conservation in mind.
Cataloguing to allow for research is about recording a letter’s origins, who it is from and who it is addressed to, when the letter was written, and also what the letter is about. This information is all placed on a digital archive which can then be searched by researchers. As a result of this, Bewick’s letters become instantly available to a much wider audience, allowing a larger range of researchers to delve beyond simply studying Bewick’s finished books and engravings. Access to Bewick’s letters can provide an insight into his networks of distribution across the country, about the publishing and manufacturing processes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and even provide names of paper suppliers and the prices they charged for their services. The letters can thus become an important source of information for social history, and not merely the study of Bewick himself.
The second aspect of the cataloguing process is cataloguing with conservation in mind. This means recording the physical condition of the letters, including any holes in the paper, tears, staining, folding or crumbling. We try to ascertain whether this damage was done at the time of Thomas Bewick – such as tearing off of seals when letters were received – or if it occurred over subsequent years. By building up a picture of the physical condition of these letters we can create a conservation plan on how best to look after them and stop or slow down any ongoing processes of decay. Building a condition report is essential for any new item entering a museum, as it provides a base-line against which the item can be periodically checked in the future, enabling us to see if it has become damaged during our time looking after it.
The process of cataloguing is an immersive one, as we physically handle and read words written down two hundred years ago and gain access to the story of their authors’ lives, with each letter providing a snapshot in time. Reading about people’s lives on paper they touched, folded and sealed gives us a unique connection with the world of Bewick, a connection which is often missing when reading a printed book.
In amongst the selection of letters which I have been cataloguing are the letters of Thomas Bewick’s brother John Bewick. The letters which John wrote to Thomas throughout 1795 provide a perfect example of the story contained in collections of letters, revealing a tragic narrative of illness, optimism and the stoic acceptance of death. John had for some time been suffering from the effects of TB, a disease which he knew was incurable. Despite this, he continued to work, describing to Thomas how he could often manage little more than two hours before bouts of coughing forced him to stop. John would also do his best to help Thomas’ business through his contacts and customers in the south of England. As a result, John’s letters are often a mixture of business and private concerns.
By 14th June 1795, John had accepted that his condition was entering its final stages, writing to Thomas to describe ‘All the pains that I have taken for two Years past to restore my Health; instead of which I get weaker and weaker, therefore now begin to have but little hopes.’ As a result he determined to return to his home at Eltringham to see Thomas, and hopefully be eased by his ‘native air’. This letter transcends the 200 years which separate our modern world from John’s, as he expresses his wish to spend his last days at his home surrounded by his family.
The story, however, did not end with John’s return to Eltringham. On his return, his health appeared to improve between July and October, and he wrote happily to his brother of the prospect of taking a walk together by the banks of the Tyne. On October 17th he described himself as being ‘free from that Fever and heaviness – my Appetite better’, John’s optimism is infectious and it becomes impossible for the reader not to be caught up in the sense of hope that pervades his letters at this time.
This renders John’s letter of the 11th November all the more devastating. This letter would prove to be the last he would write to his brother Thomas, and we can see that his health had deteriorated rapidly over the course of the previous month, and the hopes and optimism of only a few weeks earlier collapsed with it. In this letter John was clearly aware that his life was coming to an end, yet he still wrote in his typical style, devoting the majority of a page to the day-to-day concerns relating to signing legal papers. But he ended the letter with an understated, reserved goodbye to his brother, declaring that:
with respect to myself I can only say that it is with pain that I can now whisper out my wants, I think a few Days more will relieve me from all my Pains and Troubles here.
John died on the 5th December 1795, and as we handle his letters we cannot but feel that the fragility of the letters reflects a deeper sense of the fragility of all human lives.
Although it is a privilege to read these unique historical documents, moments like these become devastating. As we catalogue these letters it’s hard not to become attached to the people and the stories contained within them. To read a man’s acceptance of his fate in his own hand is an incredibly powerful moment. In a sense this is why the Wordsworth Trust exists, and why we’re conserving these letters – they provide us a with a window onto the past, and into the lives of human beings who were fundamentally no different from us .
Martin Hasted is currently working as a Trainee for the Wordsworth Trust. The role is a yearlong placement designed to give trainees experience of working in the heritage sector, and as such encompasses various roles from providing tours of Dove Cottage to working with the Trust’s extensive archival material. Martin is currently working towards cataloguing the large volume of material relating to the engraver Thomas Bewick which was acquired by the Trust in 2013.