Bewick was born in Darlington, County Durham, the son of an upholsterer. He went to London when he was twenty, where he trained under the history painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon. He made a series of drawings of the Elgin Marbles for the German poet Goethe and made a name for himself as a skilful copyist. In 1826 Sir Thomas Lawrence sent him to Rome to copy Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. When he returned to London in 1829 he worked as a portrait and history painter. Ill-health forced him to retire early, and he returned to live in north-east England for the last twenty years of his life.