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The Long and Happy Life of Norman Wilkinson
.The British flyfishing naval artist

Norman Wilkinson is the rare artist whose luck, natural talent, and love of sport fit neatly together during all his 93 years, from 1878 to 1971. His famous war-at-sea paintings hang in the Imperial War Museum, National Maritime Museum, and Buckingham Palace. He’s credited as the “mother and father” of the British railway and travel poster. He was a founding member of the Royal Society of Marine Artists, for decades President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, member of the Royal Society of British Artists, and a CBE—Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Widowed, he remarried at 89, and at 91 wrote his agreeable autobiography, A Brush With Life. His output also includes a small bundle of wonderful oils, watercolors, and drypoint etchings about fly fishing.

Yet one achievement is noticeably absent: a self-illustrated angling book. This gap is inexplicable, especially when you consider the company Wilkinson kept: Ernest Edward Briggs, the artist and author of the 1908 Angling and Art in Scotland; John Waller Hills, whose classic A Summer on the Test (1924) Wilkinson lovingly illustrated with a dozen evocative drypoints and as many untitled etchings. By then Wilkinson was already a successful artist, so it’s surprising that his name goes unmentioned in Hills’ introduction.

When Briggs died in 1913, Wilkinson, with his self-deprecating Victorian prose and stylishly original art, could easily have plugged the gap. He eventually wrote and illustrated two other books, on watercolor technique and on his war in the Dardanelles, and illustrated two more angling books: An Angler’s Anthology, edited by A. B. Austin (1930), and A Fisherman’s Angles, by Patrick R. Chalmers (1931).

At the instigation of his art dealer and publisher, Robert Dunthorne, Wilkinson produced between 1921 and 1926 some 70 mostly untitled drypoint etchings in prints runs of 75 to 125 at the height of the sporting print’s popularity in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. W. Shaw Sparrow, the charmingly opinionated author of Angling in British Art (1923), described drypoint as a “difficult and subtle art.” Wilkinson’s drypoints of fishing salmon on the Spey are as velvety edged and soft as silence, with a rare richness in contrasting tones of black that suggest the more complicated mezzotint printing method. After this, Wilkinson seems to have put angling prints aside, although Frost & Reed published his last, Trout Fishing on the Garry, in color in 1950.


Although Wilkinson was born in landlocked Cambridge, fortune moved the seastruck 16-year-old to Southsea in Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy. Wilkinson recalls little of his childhood beyond the singing and sermons during eight years at St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School, except that his meticulously drawn and colored maps put him at the head of his geography class. His evident talent convinced his mother to let him attend the Portsmouth School of Art, where his Art Master’s certificate qualified him to teach. This useful cover allowed him to follow his real calling as a sea and sky landscape artist, adding battleships or fishermen mostly for interest.

His only other formal art education was six months in Paris studying drawing and figure painting. But the anti-English feeling there, during the Boer War, helped him decide that “Figure painting was not my métier.” He returned to London just in time for the heyday of Fleet Street’s insatiable thirst for black and white illustrations for its numerous daily and weekly newspapers. This nursery of artists would launch many important careers.

And so at 20 Wilkinson began sending his work to The Illustrated London News, and would continue for the next 17 years. His first drawing, of the Royal Yacht guarded by picket boats in Portsmouth Harbour, demonstrated his familiarity with seafaring matters and technical knowledge of naval ships. (Not only did he tour the Titanic, but his mural of Plymouth Harbour in the first-class smoking room also went to the bottom with her.)


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At the outbreak of World War I, Wilkinson joined the Royal Naval Reserve and was appointed an official naval artist. He was in the Dardanelles and at Gallipoli, and saw the surrender of the German fleet. But his greatest contribution to the war effort was the invention of dazzle painting, the erratic patterns of black, gray, and white that weren’t meant to camouflage ships but rather to break up their forms and thus confuse German submariners peering through the periscope about a ship’s course and speed. In World War II, Wilkinson was appointed Inspector of Camouflage and spent the war hiding aerodromes, landing strips, and royal residences.

Wilkinson had already begun developing his striking sense of design in 1903, when what started as an exchange with the Booth Steam Ship Company of an original poster for passage to Manaus became 140 stylish, ingeniously colored and composed 60 x 40-inch railway and travel posters. By inviting members of the Royal Academy to also submit drawings, he elevated such posters to a broadly appealing and sophisticated art form—and to a high-priced collectible today.

It’s interesting how each branch of Wilkinson’s art influenced his angling imagery. Already as a kid he’d netted salmon—a method with “none of the long-drawn-out excitement of rod fishing,” as he wrote. But he was early impressed by the “strength, grace of line, and colour” of the anadromous salmon. Later, in addition to years of fly fishing for trout in Hampshire chalk streams like the Test, Wilkinson returned again and again “north of the Tweed” to the Spey, Tay, Garry, and Orchy for sport and art.

Wilkinson’s periscope point of view may have helped modernize his eye for composition. Most of his work demonstrates a unique balance—or imbalance—in the relationship between water and sky. To capture such fleeting impressions in the field, Wilkinson sketched small 7 x 5-inch watercolors, which trained him to quickly seize the moment before it vanished.

When poor lighting conditions on ships precluded his sketching in color, he’d take one of his same-sized canvases and prop it on a settee, sit on a stool in front of it, and sketch out the subject in broad monochromes, noting precisely the colors he’d use later in the studio.

Wilkinson’s background in poster work added to his understanding of manipulating scale to convey a message with panache without resorting to old tricks, such as placing a tiny vessel in the foreground to make the subject ship appear gigantic. He actually produced four posters involving salmon fishing, including “Come to Britain for Fishing” and “Sporting on the LMS,” plus two poster ads for Gilbey’s now-defunct Spey-Royal Whisky. His angling prints are more traditional and British, his fishermen usually frankly set in the semi-middle distance, finding their natural place and scale between water and sky.

W. Shaw Sparrow wryly noted that some of the best fly fishing pictures have no sportsmen in them. And so is the case with Wilkinson, especially his leaping salmon in The Lure, or his still life, Bourne Trout, which Sparrow described as “a silvery curve on one deep side and a curving shadow across the back.” Wilkinson’s camouflage designs had taught him how to make something appear flat or round with shading, or curved or straight by applying different patterns. He felt that “A good picture should be created by the artist” and not be an imitation or “facsimile of nature,” for which he said a camera was better suited.

This led to some minor conflicts between pure sport and good art, when a critic spotted a gaff in one picture. “Fresh-run spring fish should be either netted or tailed to preserve their beauty intact,” he wrote. Sparrow noted that the letter writer obviously didn’t understand how the straight line of the gaff supports the vertical fisherman against the curves of fish-heavy rods and soft-humped mountains in the distance, adding dryly, “A net would be more conspicuous.” But Wilkinson was more concerned with atmosphere and character of place than whether it’s correct for his fishermen to be casting into clear water facing bright light.

Unfortunately, Wilkinson dedicated only one delightful chapter of his autobiography to fly fishing. His ability to describe scenes in words translated into his being able to paint them. “What could be more lovely on a Southern chalk stream than the last moments of a warm June evening. The sun has gone and the deep twilight shrouds the river. A faint glow in the western sky, an evening star, a wonderful silence broken only by the cry of a hunting owl and the splash of a fish.” These words are the very essence of Seatrout Rising and Evening Rise: River Test.

Sparrow thought Wilkinson “did more for angling in art as a painter, writer and flyfisher, than anyone,” and begged him to do more. Maybe it was Hills’s timeless text that dissuaded him from pursuing his own book.

What a pity Norman Wilkinson didn’t leave us his own oeuvre on fly fishing.

Brooke Chilvers regrets that even color images of Wilkinson’s stirring angling oils (most all in private collections, to be sure), such as Spawning Bed, cannot yet be found on the Internet.



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