William Blacker-an introduction
Who was William Blacker? Now there is a question that is harder to answer than you might imagine—you can write all the biography you like about a man and yet a thousand pages later your readers will know no more about them than a list of dates and happenstance, the essence of the character having escaped in the excitement of the paper chase. It is true that sometimes the person isn’t worth finding in the first place, and we are forced to hold our hands up and admit that more than a few of angling’s greatest innovators have had personalities so tedious as to make the reader lose the will to live, but William Blacker could hardly be counted among their number. Blacker’s life was comparatively short, but he left a trail like a blazing comet, and when he fell to earth his legacy included one of the most collectible books of all time and a catalogue of stunning salmon flies.
The story of William Blacker cannot be told without telling the story of Edward Fitzgibbon, the first professional journalist that anglers ever knew, and so this book is the tale of two friends and how, between them, they changed so much without ever really having planned to do so. The reasons for writing this extended introduction are two-fold: first, to awaken your interest about Blacker and why he is too important a figure in the pantheon of fly fishing to be forgotten; and second, to explain how he managed to do such an excellent job of vanishing into the dim mists of obscurity, not that that could possibly have been his intention. In the process we will rehearse some themes that we will deal with in greater detail later in the book, but our justification for this small amount of repetition is that Blacker’s is a complicated story that merits at least a few preliminary comments.
This book took a long while to write because Blacker is a hard man to see, refracted as he is through the clinical lens of the late nineteenth century salmon fly dressers, a group who believed themselves to stand at the absolute peak that their branch of the sport would achieve. The most polite thing that George Kelson wrote about Blacker was that he was, in his day, “…a champion “dresser,” but it would have been a case of almost incredible stagnation if the art he had helped so much to promote had made no progress since his time.’ Yet Kelson managed to list one of most famous Blacker patterns without having any idea who had created it.
One of the reasons why Blacker’s importance is so difficult to appreciate today is that if the late nineteenth century authors mentioned him at all, it was as a footnote which they felt obliged to include in their grand vista of salmon fly dressing. To the last man, they portrayed the development of the gaudy salmon fly as an evolutionary process, not a big bang followed by a long tail of refinement and adaptation. In this framework there was no alternative for Blacker to be anything except an enigma—the late Victorians knew he had done something, but no-one was quite sure what.
Blacker was in the process of turning from an enigma into a phantom when Justin Knowles established The Flyfisher’s Classic Library in 1991. Justin’s aim was to produce affordable reprints of classic angling titles, a seriously praiseworthy move in the pre web era. In the early nineties he published a new edition of the 1855 Blacker’s Art of Fly Making, which included a short biography of Blacker written by Kevin McKenna, and this volume has done more to save Blacker’s memory than any other work before or since. The popularity of the reprint has ensured that McKenna’s biography has served as the primary reference on Blacker for twenty years, but although McKenna notes the earlier editions of Blacker’s book, the discussion of them is relatively superficial and the majority of the information in his excellent biographical essay is distilled from the 1855 edition.
Apart from McKenna, very few modern authors have been done much more than add to the speculation about Blacker. The great Ken Sawada described his selection of 26 Blacker patterns for his monumental work, The Art of the Classic Salmon Fly as ‘…enough to wake up the golden age of the salmon fly,’ but while Ken’s beautiful recreations of Blacker’s flies most surely catch the eye, Ken left says little about how they might have awoken the golden age. Joe Bates, on the other hand, gave a much more lukewarm assessment of Blacker, remarking that his move from Ireland to London was ‘…important because he was a principal in converting English and Scottish favor from customary drab fly patterns to the more colorful ones espoused in Ireland. Of course Blacker wasn’t the only one to do this, because anglers from the larger island had journeyed to the smaller one long before then, but he was, at least, a prime mover.’ Maybe Bates didn’t intend to damn Blacker with faint praise, but to write that ‘he was, at least, a prime mover’ is an understatement if there ever was one. To take a third example, in an otherwise excellent book published only a year or two ago, the author’s summary of Blacker includes the comment, ‘Although somewhat conservative, he was of no great importance when it came to the development of salmon flies…’ and so little do most contemporary fly dressers know about Blacker, that this passed without any comment at all. One of the most incisive questions about Blacker, and one that got both Hermann and I thinking, was asked by John Betts in The Salmon Flyer, a long-fabled newsletter from the classic salmon fly tying circuit of the 1990s. Just about everyone who became anyone on the re-emerging salmon fly tying scene wrote for that superb little paper, which led a hand-to-mouth existence until the web eventually killed it. Having read the then recent reprint of the 1855 edition, John wrote, ‘Who was William Blacker? Where did he come from, and who were his associates?’ John’s whole article was a question, prompted by his sensing of the fog which surrounded Blacker, and his wish to see beyond it in order to understand the man. This fog was generated by the 1855 edition of Blacker’s book, which, because it was on sale for nearly 40 years, influenced several generations of fly dressers, and, for better or worse, has served as Blacker’s epitaph.
A very good example of this ‘1855 effect’ is Eric Taverner’s view of Blacker, which included his opinion that the 1842 and 1843 editions were ‘much alike’ the 1855, although he had never seen either. In the Lonsdale Library volume on Salmon Fishing Taverner wrote, “Judged by the standard of the flies shown in Jones’ plates… Blacker was somewhat behind the times” which is an interesting comment, given that Blacker published a plate in 1842 which showed the first complex jointed-body mixed-wing salmon fly ever illustrated, and there is nothing to find in the 1848 Jones’s Guide to Norway that cannot be found in Blacker’s 1843 edition. In defence of Taverner, Blacker’s early editions have long been scarce, but they are not that scarce that a determined researcher cannot find them, yet this is where the conspiracy of ignorance comes into play again—why rock the boat when no-one is likely to question the status quo? As the decades have ticked away since Blacker’s death, so has an endemic lack of enquiry taken hold, with the result that some years ago a very well-respected fly dresser was able to write that, ‘Although no specimens of his flies survive for us to admire, they must have been truly magnificent’ without anyone being in a position to question him. Even the very well connected John Waller Hills, the author of A History of Fly Fishing for Trout, who did more than anyone to preserve Blacker’s memory as an innovative trout fly dresser, could say no more than he believed that some copies of Blacker’s books contained actual flies. The bottom line is that without comprehensive access to source documents, it is impossible to write from an informed viewpoint, and until a unique combination of circumstances put a collector, a writer and photographer, and a salmon fly tyer together, no-one had that comprehensive access, but it doesn’t mean to say that the sheep-like acceptance that Blacker “was somewhat behind the times” was right.
To give a taste of how Blacker was seen in his own time, let’s take a look at his contribution to trout fly dressing, which is rarely given any serious consideration. The detached body emerger, which went on sale in his shop in 1848 and was called the ‘Winged Larva’, was a visionary leap. In designing this pattern, which was as deadly for salmon and sea-trout as it was for browns, Blacker was a century ahead of his time. The India-rubber mayfly hidden away on page 65 of the 1843 edition is the first extended body pattern published anywhere in the literature and yet with Blacker’s death both patterns faded into obscurity. Had it been published in 1880, the Winged Larva would be famous today.
Blacker arrived in London just in time to play a starring role in the development of the salmon fly, doubling the number of patterns in print, introducing no less than seven of the core materials used to tie them (Bustard, Cock-of-the-Rock, Toucan, Cotinga, Ibis, Junglefowl, and Wood Duck), and publishing the first detailed account of how to tie an Irish mixed wing pattern. As related earlier, the first edition of Blacker’s book was illustrated with the first plate to show a classically jointed salmon fly; within a year the first illustration of a salmon fly tied with a gut loop would join it, and in 1844 Blacker would become the first fly dresser that we can prove to have used twisted gut loops. Only a handful of British anglers had seen anything of the like before and it isn’t surprising that for a fifteen year period Blacker became the leading authority on the subject of salmon flies, educating leading lights like Edward Fitzgibbon (‘Ephemera’ of Bell’s Life) and Frederic Tolfrey, the editor of the famous Jones’s Guide to Norway. Blacker’s flair for innovation guaranteed him not only the custom of pioneering salmon fishermen like Sir Hyde Parker, but royalty in the form of Prince Albert. Summarised like that, it is easy to see what Blacker did, but years of research lay behind the two paragraphs above, and to be fair to earlier authors, the mists that have been encouraged to cloak the man mean that even the bibliography of Blacker has become an enigma. Westwood and Satchell’s 1883 Bibliotheca Piscatoria, the standard work about collectible books on angling, has a super-concise section on Blacker, listing a 38 page 1842 edition, titled the Art of Angling, and complete system of fly-making and dyeing of colours, a December 8th 1842 entry [sic] at Stationers’ Hall with the title Blacker’s catechism of fly-making, angling, and dyeing, and the 1855 edition. Westwood and Satchell had good excuse, because by the 1890s, the vast majority of the surviving early editions of Blacker’s books were already held in private collections, the 1842 edition, first group, for example, being scarce even then, and even Dean Sage’s immense library only ran to a single copy of the 1843, or ‘new’ edition. If the two most famously thorough nineteenth century angling bibliophiles could only identify three variants of Blacker’s book between them, one of which it appears that they had never seen and listed with the wrong publication date, imagine the trouble that writers were experiencing a couple of decades later?
Despite the above, as much, if not more Blacker material has survived than is the case for the majority of fly dressers who were alive in his time, but its tremendous value as collectibles has kept it hidden. The challenge for previous authors has been that the 1842 and 1843 editions of Blacker’s book are scarce and have appreciated very fast; not so long ago one set the angling press on fire after fetching the record price at auction for a book on angling of £187,000. Copies with full sets of trout flies in good condition are magnets for the big beasts of collecting and are gone before they have time to cast a shadow. Collecting Blacker material is not for the faint of heart.
The reason that Hermann and I have been able to collaborate on this work is that we are in a very different position to anyone who has gone before us. Comprising as it does a close inspection of more than three dozen copies of the early editions, and dozens more of the 1855, combined with a professionally-led world-wide catalogue search, this book is based upon the largest collection of Blacker material ever to be reviewed. As such, these volumes are probably destined to be unique, although we hope that at some point in the future circumstances will allow the knowledge contained in these pages to be enlarged upon. Should the opportunity ever present itself the task is unlikely to fall to the pair of us, but we wish good luck to whoever undertakes the journey, because the reward is so great—if you are that person, and if neither of us is here any longer to advise you, we hope very much that you have as much fun as we did.
We have been unable to discover a portrait of either William Blacker, or of Edward Fitzgibbon, despite a lengthy search, the one comfort of our failure to do so being that we are in good company, because R.B. Marston failed too, despite an appeal to the readers of the Fishing Gazette. It is not that the pair couldn’t have had their portraits taken, because Mr. Claudet, for example, was advertising his instant daguerreotype process at the Royal Adelaide Gallery in the Strand at a very reasonable cost as early as 1842, but no likenesses have survived. On the whole, this isn't surprising, because neither Blacker nor Fitzgibbon had any children and so there was no-one left to keep their flame alive, apart, maybe, from us, and a few dedicated fly tyers like Robert Frandsen.
One last thing. we have mentioned Blacker’s sense of harmony, a talent which extended far beyond his fly dressing into his personal life, with the result that everyone who met him valued his company. It gave Blacker, as one long dead reviewer pointed out, a grace that transcended art, and transformed his patterns into charms that fishermen kept for long after his death. Surviving flies, and the ones shown in the plates that Blacker laboured so long to perfect, show a flowing style and sense of freedom. Perhaps that was why Blacker called his book The Art of Angling, but then again, we really don’t think that Blacker took salmon very seriously; he was after a very much more sophisticated animal, and he caught plenty of them.