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Francis Francis and Sporting Sketches

Francis FrancisIn the old world, you could get away with borrowing a dream from Walton and a set of flies from Hawkins, because as far as the illustrators of early angling texts were concerned, very little ever changed, apart from the shape of women’s hats. But when Francis Francis was angling editor of The Field and one of the best connected men in field sports, nothing could be taken for granted any more.

Photography was becoming more and more popular and artists were facing the total loss of the mother-lode they had worked for centuries, scenes drawn from life. Where once editorial routine was to glance at a few preliminary sketches as the first stage in the commissioning of one artist to draw three men in a punt, before going to the trouble and expense of having another engrave it, now he could snap his fingers and get a photographer to do the same job at a fraction of the cost. On top of that, the photographer, being a technician, could be told what to do and would probably expose several other plates at the same time, giving the editor a choice of finished views and maybe some pictures which could be used elsewhere. It wasn’t quite the retreat from Moscow, but artists began a long retrenchment into other fields and although there was still plenty of work around, after the last quarter of the nineteenth century you rarely see full-page plates in angling books and if you do, it is because the book has notions of art. Illustration was finding another meaning and engravings from the early twentieth century tell a very different story to images that were cut even a couple of generations before.

Francis, at the time one of the best-loved men in angling and an all-rounder who rubbed shoulders with the rich but wasn’t above learning from the poor, found himself at The Field at a time when everything was changing. The railway had rewritten the definition of distance, leisure had been invented and fishing had never been more popular, but a new class of angling technocrat was throwing out the old methods wholesale. By a delicious freak of chance, almost the same moment, wood engraving, which had seen a rapid rise in popularity during the nineteenth century, simultaneously reached perfection and became old-fashioned, swept away by the invention of the photo-mechanical reproduction. The fabulous engravings Francis used to illustrate his lush 1878 work on field sports, Sporting Sketches, show anglers belonging to the last generation to avoid the unblinking eye of the camera.

By the end of the century the only major illustrator who could insist on his work being transferred to woodblock was Sir John Tenniel. Cooper, the artist who drew the scenes for Sporting Sketches, was a sportsman himself and he drew from life, with many of the scenes featuring well-known personalities, including Horace Cox, the publisher. But if you look at the illustrations, the camera had already made its impression - Cooper’s drawings have more in common with photographs than perhaps he would have been willing to admit.

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