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Catch them if you can: Bringing the 18th-century riverbank to life

As a new book showcases angling prints that bring the 18th-century riverbank to life, Michael McCarthy argues that they form an important chapter in the story of Britain

The whole scene is improbable, at least to modern eyes, but it is the hat which makes you look twice.

Scarlet, white and black, it rises vertically nearly three feet from the head of the wearer, a young woman in her twenties; even on ladies' day at Royal Ascot, where female millinery styles this year ranged from giant anemones to a pair of pheasants, it would draw astonished glances. The rest of the costume is scarcely less impressive: a full-blown white silk gown, with a royal blue bow the size of a dinner plate on the bodice, surmounted by a navy and white shawl. Plus the pink slippers, of course. Let's not forget the pink slippers. And this is an angler. Angling.

It's always enlightening to have our preconceptions overturned, and this print from the 1780s certainly does that. If we have an image of the angler today, it is almost of a military figure, of a man of action dressed in the camouflage colours of drab brown and olive green to be able to blend into the bankside background (Britain's most famous 20th-century fisherman, Richard Walker, even dyed his handkerchiefs khaki. You don't want the trout alerted by the white flash as you wipe your nose.)

In this coloured mezzotint, however, there is no question of blending in. There is only standing out. How do you creep up on a fish with a confection on your head that looks like a full-sized archery target? Yet lo and behold, The Angelic Angler, as the print identifies her, has caught something, without even getting her pink slippers muddy.

She is only one of a number of extravagantly dressed, 18th-century female fisherpersons seen on the riverside in silks and satins, ribbons and bonnets, rods in hand, who unexpectedly glitter out at us from a new history of the visual representation of fishing in Britain over the past 300 years. David Beazley's Images of Angling is an encyclopaedic gathering of the work of more than 300 artists and craftsmen, yet it is a social as well as an artistic history because it concerns itself not with paintings or drawings but with prints, which for hundreds of years represented the only form of visual mass communication, the only way people could see the things which interested them.

We tend to forget that. A century and a half after photography came along, we are so used to the ubiquity of the image and its easy creation that we forget how important prints were and how much effort went into making them, how immensely skilled the practitioners of the great print-making techniques were: woodcut, engraving, etching, mezzotint, aquatint, dry point, lithograph, screen print. One of the attractions of Beazley's book is that the technical background is everywhere present without seeming obtrusive, enabling the reader to get a feel for methods and processes. The woodcut, a design on a block of wood, was the earliest form of print, used in China 1,500 years ago. It stood alone until in the 15th century, engraving and etching on a metal plate, usually copper, were invented in Germany: the printmaker's craft was to convert the artist's design into marks on the copper surface by cutting with a tool (engraving) or biting with acid (etching), sometimes both. Mezzotint, aquatint and dry point also use metal plates; lithographs use stone, and screen prints use textiles.

The German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer is probably the first great European printmaker (some would say the greatest ever) with his copperplate engravings of his own images which went all over the continent at the start of the 16th century, but in Britain it was nearly 200 years more before printmaking became properly established. And although Beazley's collection begins with a design of an angling scene by Francis Barlow, etched by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1671, and ends with a print of trout fishing by Norman Wilkinson, who died in 1971, it is the century from approximately 1750 to 1850 which forms the core, before what he terms "photo-mechanical" print techniques arrived, such as photogravure.

In some ways this, the age of the late Georgians and the early Victorians, was the golden age of printmaking in Britain (it roughly corresponds to the golden age of the stagecoach). There was a vast and growing popular audience hungry for a whole range of images, from the topographical to the political: from views of vales and dales, as landscape art took off, to the savage political caricatures of Gillray and Rowlandson, and one of the most popular genres was the sporting print, the scenes showing racing with its horses and jockeys, and more animated images of hunting, shooting and fishing.

But while antique hunting prints are endlessly catalogued, and familiar to us all from a thousand hotel lounges (with shooting prints scarcely less so), angling prints, paintings and images have largely been ignored: the last serious study, Walter Shaw Sparrow's Angling in British Art, appeared as long ago as 1923. Beazley has rescued this forgotten corner of British art from obscurity, and in doing so he has shone a fascinating light on British social history.

For if fishing today is the most popular participation sport in the country, with more than three million adherents, it was clearly every whit as popular in Georgian and Victorian times, right across society, even if equipment was more lo-tech (many rods did not have reels, merely a line fixed to the rod's end) and in the upper social stratum uniform was stiffly formal: gentlemen anglers at the waterside wore frock coats and glossy black top hats. The fact that there were fashionable ladies at the waterside too is one of Beazley's surprises, but, he writes: "In the second half of the 18th century the illustration of angling frequently showed both sexes participating, whether as family, friends or sweethearts." And there was more to it than that. "Ladies," he says, "were often shown angling as an allegorical expression of their interest in catching a man," and he reveals that attached to the print of The Angelic Angler is a verse:

"At once Victorious, with your hands and eyes,
You make the fishes and the Men your prize,
And while the pleasing Slavery we Court,
I fear you Captivate us both for Sport."

The woman with the outrageous hat is, in effect, a Georgian angler's pin-up.

A former marketing executive and keen fisherman, Beazley has been collecting angling prints for 25 years and is now the acknowledged British expert; and it is his personal expertise, as well as his enthusiasm, which informs this collection of more than 350 images (beautifully put together by his publisher, Tim Benn), which show everything from elegant fishing parties to poachers after salmon, from fishing monks to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their three youngest children, fishing from a boat on Virginia Water in Surrey. The book will fascinate many more people than anglers: opening it is like stumbling across a lost album of colour photographs, from before the invention of photography.

'Images of Angling' is published by Creel Press (£50). To order a copy for the special price of £45 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk