Only very occasionally in fly fishing is a book published that is completely different from anything that has gone before, and Images of Angling is just such a book. Actually, that's not quite true, I learn from Timothy Benn’s Foreword that Walter Shaw Sparrow’s Angling in British Art featured about 300 prints of fishing oil paintings, but it was published way back in 1923.
This book is a collection of printed angling art in all its forms: from oils, engravings, sketches, cartoons and political sketches dating back over 300 years. Each print evokes a little piece of angling history and thereby easily “paints a thousand words” to a fisherman – the tackle used, the clothing, the landscape and the lifestyle all compose a historical document of the era. For instance, William Heath's Salmon fishing shows the 1835 kilted angler dapping his fly onto the river’s surface in the Western Isles, possibly in Islay or Jura. But which burgeoning island river is it? And could the haul of fish his top-hatted gillie is wrestling with be sea trout? Each piece of art is meticulously documented by David Beazley, often with accompanying detective work on the artist or the picture. For instance, we learn that the proceeds of Theodore Lane’s The Enthusiast – an 1831 depiction of a gout-stricken angler in his living room, fully equipped and fishing in his bath-tub by the fireside – went to sustain his family when he was killed falling through a skylight later that same year. The picture now resides in the Tate Gallery.
Flicking through the pages, you soon realise that fishermen formed an essential part of the landscape for Constable, Turner and Gainsborough. Landseer, of course, painted fish, but even his work is eclipsed by ‘the fish painter’ Henry Leonidas Rolfe, also dubbed ‘the Landseer of fish.’
Sometimes the river or lake in the scene is mentioned in the title, but often I found myself studying the prints hard, trying to work out exactly where the artist had based his subject; this topic is also the thread for some of David Beazley’s analysis. For instance, do I recognise the pool where Ernest Briggs painted Trout Fishing on the Tummel, or did the dam change the river beyond recognition? And could I have fished the same pool at which Joseph Farquharson painted Salmon fishing on the Dee?
My favourites? W Dendy Sadler’s Thursday which depicts a dozen Franciscan monks fishing enjoying a day on the banks of a river. Rolfe’s Not long caught, which captures the sheer beauty of a basket of plump trout still wet, iridescent and glistening out of a highland river; and Eel bobbing at Battersea, which somehow brings together the character, diversity, intensity and universal nature of angling within a simple sketch.
Although it features a lot of fly-fishing images, it includes all aspects of the sport, from fishing for gudgeon to fishing (and poaching!) for salmon, to hooking fair maidens (in art, the skilful angler always seems to land his ‘catch’).
A beautifully published book which oozes quality. Either dip into it, or read it more earnestly. Whatever, time and again you'll discover something new. Fascinating.
Images of Angling by David Beazley; Creel Press (£50; publication date October 30)