Among Professor Bright’s books catalogued last week was a small octavo, the first edition of Robert Venables The Experienc’d Angler; or Angling Improv’d, printed for Richard Marriot in 1662. It was neatly rebound sometime in the 1820’s in black morocco, and the binder took care to re-affix two distinctive bookplates upon the marbled front pastedown and free endpaper. I’m guessing 1820s because the binder had neatly sewn in two gatherings of mostly blank leaves on wove paper with an 1822 watermark. This was done to pad the front and back of the text block, and to accommodate an unidentified bibliographer’s manuscript notes. These were written in library hand on the last two leaves of the first “preliminary” gathering and a conjugate leaf inserted between the contents and the first page of the work (i.e., between leaves [A8] and B1); and on a replacement leaf conjugate with the second gathering of blanks at the back of the book giving in manuscript facsimile the text of missing pages 101-102. Though I applaud this person for expending great pains to make this copy “perfect” and to preserve his or her sundry comments in it, they now serve only to distract from what makes this book truly special: the fishes.
The first fish appears on an added title page engraved by Robert Vaughan, in a design which depicts a “moving” still life in the rectangular space between the frame of the plate and the cartouche at its center. It must be a pure engraving, for the design teems with “slices of life,” on the order of Edouard Manet’s Still Life with Fish. The fish depicted here to the right of the cartouche is a Pike hanging on a hook looking not too displeased by its situation. Below its tail are various worms and two artificial flies, marching forth like little soldiers in a boundless space. The barbs of the slender fly hooks curve backwards upon their artificial bodies like two great blue herons having a nip behind their wings, and the bodies of the worms seem suffused in little halos of light. They are making their march above a tackle-basket; and as one’s eye follows their course, they settle upon two long rods standing upright to the left of the cartouche, with the lines of each casting about freely in a wind. Above the cartouche is a small shelf with a caster and other fishing accoutrements upon it. The vitality of the design is all of a piece with Vaughan’s unique cursive letter forms giving the title. This is copperplate engraving and intaglio printing at its best, and it presents a stark contrast to the crudely printed letterpress title page so typical of much 17th century English printing.
The second fish is a Trout, which appears in chapter five, “Of divers sorts of Baits for several fish,” printed intaglio with its head facing the fore edge of the leaf (E4 recto), with relief text above and below it. The plate mark measures exactly 4 x 7.5 cm, and the impression shows that the plate was tilted upwards at the upper right hand corner, thereby imparting to the Trout an impression of swimming upstream, or out of the book! It is rendered with a lively scowl on its face, and gives a sense of rapid movement. The engraving looks to be nearly as fine as Vaughan’s Pike on the title page, but it is not signed. Nor are the eight other engraved fish that follow in succession, all inserted in the text. On the next page (E4 verso) one finds a Barbel and Carp facing the fore edge, printed on two plates one on top of the other, with letterpress above both; followed by a Tench on p. 57; and another, distinct Pike on p. 58; an Eel on p. 59; a Bream on p. 61; and a Loach and Bullhead, one on top of the other, on p. 63. All nine fishes are rendered alive, each displaying a distinct personality, being of a piece with Venables’s descriptions of the various baits used to catch them: “The Trout takes all sorts of worms, especially Brandlings ; all sorts of flies, Menow, young Frogs, Marsh-worme, Dock-worme, Flag-worme ; all sorts of Cadbait, Bob, Palmers, Caterpillers, Gentles, Wasps, Hornets, Dores, Bees, Grashoppers, Cankers and Bark-worm ; he is a ravenous greedy fish, and loveth a large bait at ground, and you must fit him accordingly.” When I learned from Lowndes that, “The engravings of the fish are the same as used for Walton’s Angler,” the hunt was on; I was determined to follow these fishes to the man who made them.
Why not Robert Vaughan? The 1653 first edition of Walton’s Compleat Angler was also published by Richard Marriot. Of this edition, Lowndes says only, “The plates are supposed to have been engraved on steel by Lombart.” Although Lowndes may be a bit out of date – and it is unlikely that they were engraved on steel – a 2003 New York Public Library exhibition celebrating the 350th anniversary of Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler had their two copies of the first edition on display, with one open to the trout. The label reads: “The handsome trout shown here, in an engraving (on indifferent paper) attributed to Pierre Lombart, is the quintessential English freshwater game fish.”
This attribution is very likely based on Thomas Westwood’s authoritative Chronicle of the Compleat Angler published in 1883. Of the first edition, Westwood says, “Not a noticeable book, amongst others, by any means, and yet superior to most of its class in point of adornment, by virtue of those plates of fish . . . which are, indeed, very daintily and delicately handled. There is no name attached to these engravings, but they are ascribed, with a great show of probability, to the noted French engraver, Pierre Lombart, at that time resident in this country, and whose talent was mostly devoted to book-illustration. Sir Harris Nicolas, though giving preference to Lombart, suggests, at the same time, as a possible candidate for the honour, Faithorne or Vaughan, the latter of whom was certainly employed by Marriot on other work.”
Pierre Lombart is best known for his headless portrait of Oliver Cromwell on Horseback, after Van Dyck’s equestrian portrait of Charles I, and Robert Vaughan for his engravings illustrating the first English translation of Thomas Norton’s Ordinall of Alchimy in Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum of 1652.
Maybe those fish were engraved on plates of steel after all!