The Compleat Angler

Catherine Wood, The Compleat Angler, exh. R.A 1910

 Catherine Morris Wood was born in Islington in 1857, one of three sisters, to a London barrister and a Scottish mother.  In 1879 she won a scholarship to the Royal Female School of Art (since incorporated into what is now Central St Martins). She was talented and prolific, exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1880, when she was 23, and continuing to show her work there for more than forty years. She also exhibited at the New English Art Club, the Royal Society of British Artists, and the Walker Galleries, and was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils, the RBA, Suffolk Street, and the Society of Women Artists (previously, until 1872, the Society of Lady Artists).

 At an exhibition by the last-named, her skill caught the eye of Walter Sickert, who reviewed ‘The exhibition of Lady Artists in the Drawing-room Gallery of the Egyptian Hall’ for an article, ‘The Lady Artists’ in the New York Herald, 27 March 1889. Having excoriated the usual ‘same strips of canvas or paper painted by people who ought never to paint’, he picks out ‘ ‘Strawberries and Cherries,’ by Catherine N. [sic] Wood, [which] is just about as perfect as they make them. No. 211 reminds me in its smart juiciness of Mr Ludovici’s flower-pictures’ (see Walter Sickert: The complete writings on art, ed. Anna Gruetzner Robins, 2000, pp. 22-25).

 In 1892, at the age of 35, Catherine Wood married the watercolourist Richard Henry Wright of Hampshire, and they lived together at 2 Harcourt Buildings in the Inner Temple (destroyed during the Blitz, and rebuilt in the 1950s). 

R.H. Wright, Durham Cathedral from the River Wear, 1889, watercolour, Bonhams, 6 June 2006

 Wright painted primarily architectural and landscape subjects, many of them set in Europe and Egypt, whereas Catherine specialized in still life, flowerpieces and genre subjects. This complementary aspect of their marriage is summed-up in the catalogue of the 1910 Royal Academy exhibition, in which Catherine’s entries were two oils, The Complete Angler (probably the present painting) and Granny’s love-letters, and her husband’s was a watercolour entitled The Lotos-land. However, the same year finds her painting The font in the Baptistery, Siena, so her marriage evidently inspired her to broaden her scope (she also painted The Arch of Titus, Rome, undated; A church interior of 1892 – possibly executed on her honeymoon; A matador; and An Alpine village, amongst others). Manchester City Art Gallery possesses a Wood oil painting, The church of St Etienne, of 1911. Her husband died in 1930, and Catherine herself may have followed him in 1939, after which she can no longer be traced.

Catherine Wood, A vase of blossom, s. & d. 1937, Skinners Auction, 14 November 2008

As well as the 19th century’s approved subjects for female painters – roses, flower vases, fruit, interiors of rooms, etc. – Catherine also produced what might be termed ‘male’ subjects. Male artists created still life oil paintings that depicted subjects such as; gamepieces, pipes, books, papers, food etc. During this period male artists certainly dominated the art market; therefore this use of ‘masculine’ subject matter could potentially have made Catherine’s work much more attractive to the art market at the time.

Catherine Wood, Still life of books & papers on a desk, Christie’s New York, 15 Feb. 1995

This may have been a deliberately commercial decision, in order to make her work more saleable to the wealthier members of society, or possibly a consequence of growing up with a sporting father. The present painting, sometimes known as The fly-fisherman’s work bench, but possibly identical with The Complete Angler of the same year, 1910, is an instance of this. The subject is interesting, as it was only in Catherine’s painting lifetime that it was rendered respectable (in an academic sense) by the publication in 1886 of F.M. Halford’s Floating flies and how to dress them, with 90 hand-coloured engravings ‘of the most killing patterns’. This was one of the earlier books of its kind, and the first edition was almost completely sold out before its actual publication.

 Plate V, Halford’s Floating flies…, 1886

This book had an immediate and global influence, kick-starting the sport in France and becoming widely available in America (along with Halford’s actual flies) by 1888. It also elevated the tied fly to the realm of art through its delicate and beautifully-coloured illustrations.

 Catherine Wood may have been aware, not only of Halford’s book, but of artists such as Henry Leonidas Rolfe. Rolfe (1823-81) exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1847-74, as well as at Suffolk Street and the British Institution, his paintings being mainly still life subjects of dead fish and of fishing tackle. His work was also produced as a series of lithographs, published in 1856 by William Tegg of Cheapside.

Henry Leonidas Rolfe, The day’s catch, Pocock Fine Art, Fort Lauderdale

Rolfe was an angler himself, as was his elder brother Alexander (1814-75), a painter and photographer; the two Rolfes were part of a painting dynasty, members of the first family of eight children of the painter William Edmund Rolfe. One of their sisters, Catherine, was also an artist, and their brother-in-law was John Herring junr., with whom Alexander sometimes collaborated.

Alexander Frederick Rolfe, Trout fishing, date & location unknown

Henry Rolfe specialized in piscine still life paintings, whilst Alexander’s angling works tend to be more landscape in character – although Alexander painted his younger brother pursuing his hobby: Limner of scaly subjects, 1850 (? ex-Piscatorial Society). The present painting by Catherine Wood might function as the ‘before’ stage to Henry Rolfe’s ‘after’ arrangements: the preparation for angling, with the making of a book of flies and filling of a fishing creel, followed by the result: the open book of flies, rod, hip flask, pipe, and captured fish.

 Catherine Wood, The Compleat Angler, exh. R.A 1910, and H. L. Rolfe, Salmon on the riverbank, 1855Sotheby’s Glasgow, 11Dec.1996

In general, paintings of fish by themselves are a more common manifestation of this particular genre. A sub-branch of the gamepiece, the still life with dead fish had been relatively popular in the Netherlands during the 17th century, modulating into the genre of market-paintings, comprising large, virtuoso representations of vegetables, bread and other displays of food, often arranged on market stalls.

Johannes Fabritius (1636-93), Still life with fish, eels and fishing nets, Sotheby’s New York, 27 May 2004

This still life by Johannes Fabritius anticipates Catherine Wood and Henry Rolfe in the angling paraphernalia which is, unusually, included along with the fish. Here it is the paraphernalia of sea fishing, with buoys, floats, nets, lobster pots and killing implements which surround and give context to the shining scaly confusion of sea life, establishing it as an aspect of nature which is controlled and harvested by Man.

 By the 19th century there was a small group of painters of various nationalities, such as the Rolfes and, for example, Henry Jervis Alfred (fl.1855), who specialized in fish paintings; however, these usually comprised arrangements of the fish either within a landscape or on a table.

Henry Jervis Alfred (fl.1855), Still life with fish,  Hartleys Auctioneers, 6 Dec. 2009

Edouard Manet, Still life with fish, 1864, Art Institute of Chicago

They might be accompanied in the one case by riverbank plants and in the other by kitchen equipment, but the accoutrements of angling were rarely depicted. For example, in this still life by Edouard Manet, the fish are portrayed with oysters, a lemon and knife, and a copper fish kettle, which are included mainly for the sensuous contrast of coral red and yellow with the monochromes of the fish. Henry Rolfe’s careful still life accessories of nets, flasks, rods, pouches, etc., are sufficiently unusual to be noted; but Catherine Wood’s painting, with all the carded silks, feathers, scissors, twists of wire – not to mention the books, creel, reel, and the portrait in the background of Izaak Walton, is extraordinarily rare and eye-catching.

Catherine Wood, engraving of Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler, detail; and engraving of Izaak Walton after the portrait by Jacob Huysmans, National Portrait Gallery

The engraving is probably the early 19th century version by George Maile after the painting of Walton by Jacob Huysmans, c.1672, and it is complemented by the bottle-green book lying on its side, behind the album of tied flies and immediately below the portrait.

Catherine Wood, The Compleat Angler with detail of Izaak Walton’s book; spine of a copy of the 1808 edition

This may possibly be a copy of the 100th edition of Walton’s The Compleat Angler, issued in 1888. The painting is in effect an homage to the two men whose books most informed the sport of fly fishing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Izaak Walton and F.M. Halford, and as such it is a unique and evocative work.

Catherine Wood’s sisters seem to have been equally talented as their elder sibling; Emily was a medical student in 1891, whilst Ursula followed her elder sister into the arts, exhibiting at least 16 works in the Royal Academy (where she may have trained). She specialized in landscapes and genre subjects, showing A wet day paradise at the Royal Academy in 1911, whilst Catherine, equally characteristically, exhibited The dusty past.

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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