The centre one represents the Ocean, and the others, eight English rivers - Thames, Mersey, Humber, Tweed, Medway, Dee, Tyne and Severn. They were carved in stone, five by Wilton and four (including Tyne) by Carlini, who were two of the early Royal Academicians. The river Tyne is represented by a head, surmounted by a basket of burning coals and various other emblems of local trades, with hair running down to a beard in three plaits at the bottom. It became familiar to people in the North by appearing as frontspiece of Volume II of Brand's History of Newcastle upon Tyne, published in 1789.
The design was reproduced from a copper engraving by Fittler. Somerset House was the meeting place of the Society of Antiquaries of which Brand was a fellow and for twenty-two years the resident Secretary, so one can readily assume that it was from this connection that he came to know Sir William Chambers, the architect of the building, and from him that he obtained the design of the River God.
In 1982 Moses Aaron Richardson, the younger brother of T. M. Richardson, the well known Tyneside artist, opened a shop as a printer and bookseller at the corner of Blackett Street and Pilgrim Street in Newcastle upon Tyne. He later moved to Grey Street after the construction of that street was begun by Richard Grainger in 1834-35.
Richardson, reviving the practice of early printers and booksellers, put up as a sign over his shop in Grey Street a carving of the God Tyne. The carving was made from the engraving in Brand's book and is therefore a copy of the original mask at Somerset House. It was carved in wood by Robert Sadler Scott, a house and ship carver in Blackett Street. Richardson also used a wood engraving of the head as a printer's colophone and on the title pages of numerous imprints from the press.
In 1850 M. A. Richardson emigrated to Australia and the printing business was continued by his son, George Bouchier Richardson, who moved to fresh premises at 38 Clayon Street, where the carved head was fixed over the doorway as his trade mark. In 1854 G. B. Richardson followed his father to Australia, and the business was carried on, first by I. G. Foster, then others, and eventually sold.
Andrew Reid, the founder of Andrew Reid & Co. Ltd., of Newcastle upon Tyne, purchased the carving at some date between 1854 and 1863 and placed it on the keystone of the arched entrance to the firm's new Printing Court Buildings at Akenside Hill. The mask was moved to Strawberry House where a new printing house was built in 1926 and since 1963, when Andrew Reid & Co Ltd. joined the Hindson Print Group, it has been on display in the reception room at Strawberry House.
During the lifetime of the mask it had been treated with oil and lead paint but after years of exposure to the elements and an industrial atmosphere much of the fine detail had filled with black grime. Fortunately it has been possible to clean off the grime and reveal not only the colour and texture of the wood but also the fine craftsmanship of the carver.
For over 130 years this Tyne God has looked down on the changing life around the river. On his head he carries the symbols of the early industries that made Tyneside famous and has the added distinction of having been a colophon for fine printing throughout this period.
Pictured below is the River-God Tyne.