William Harvey played an important role in the development of the art of illustration during the first half of the nineteenth century. Having trained as a wood engraver, ‘he always made his drawing sympathetic to the process and helpful to those who worked to his drawings’ (Iain Bain, 2004, page 684). As a result, he proved popular and prolific.
William Harvey was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on 13 July 1796, the son of the superintendant of the Public Baths, Westgate. His talent for drawing being recognised at an early age, he became the last apprentice of the pioneering wood engraver, Thomas Bewick, during the years 1810-17. He assisted on the illustrations to Bewick’s famous edition of The Fables of Aesop (1818), and would remain in contact with his master until his death a decade later.
In 1817, Harvey moved to London, and gradually established himself as a wood engraver.
A year later, he began to study alongside Edwin and Thomas Landseer, in drawing and painting under Benjamin Robert Haydon and in anatomy under Charles Bell. The most impressive result of this study was the large wood-engraved copy of Haydon’s history painting, The Assassination of Dentatus, which he completed in 1821; intended to emulate copper engraving, it was much admired, and helped set a trend for more elaborate wood engravings.
From the early 1820s, Harvey focussed on book illustration, preparing designs for others to engrave, and soon becoming such a prolific leader in the field that he helped to revolutionise the market. Significant early titles included James Northcote’s One Hundred Fables (1828), Edward Turner Bennett’s The Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society Delineated (1830-31), and the traditional ballad, The Children in the Wood (1831). He went on to work particularly closely with the publisher, Charles Knight, on such major projects as The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakespere (1839) and E W Lane’s edition of The Thousand and One Nights (1839-41). He became one of the most popular illustrators of the 1840s, but received some criticism for mannerism in his later work. However, while he ‘established no school of engravers’ (Bain 2004, page 684), ‘his influence on [John] Gilbert and early Fred Walker was considerable’ (Houfe 1996, page 170).
Harvey died at Prospect Lodge, The Vineyard, Richmond, Surrey, his home for many years, on 13 January 1866.
His work is represented in the collections of the British Museum; and The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge).
Further reading: Iain Bain, ‘Harvey, William (1796-1866)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 25, pages 683-684 Justine Hopkins, ‘Harvey, William (b Newcastle upon Tyne, 13 July 1798; d Richmond, London, 13 Jan 1866)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 14, page 208