As a cataloger, it’s fun to assign a subject heading that I’ve never seen before. (Okay, I’m easily amused.) Last week that new subject heading was “Flies, Artificial — Specimens” for the book Mayflies of the Driftless Region by Gaylord Schanilec. The special edition of this book won two design awards, at least in part because of the slipcase, which includes eight hand-tied fly-fishing lures. (The awards are the 2006 Carl Hertzog Award for Excellence in Book Design and a Judges Choice Award at the 2005 Oxford Fine Press Book Fair. The binding and slipcase were created by Jill Jevne, and the dry flies were tied by David Lucca.) See the record in our online catalog for a complete description of this edition.

Mayflies complements the collection of approximately 2200 books in the Frederick Lane (Class of 1936) Angling Collection, which focuses on fly fishing, outdoorsmanship, and natural history. For more on this collection, read this article by Tyler S. Wick ’92.

Hand tied dry flies enclosed in the slipcase.

Mayflies is also a particularly fine example of modern wood-engraved illustrations. Our copy is accompanied by a set of “progressive proofs,” showing the stages of the printing process.

Progressive proofs

“Wood-engravings” are made with a particular technique of the “woodcut” illustration process. Antony Griffiths, in his book Prints and Printmaking, gives this explanation of the technique:

“Wood-engraving is in essence only a particular form of the woodcut developed in the late eighteenth century … a very hard wood is used, usually boxwood; since box has only a small diameter, large blocks have to be made by bolting smaller ones together. The wood is cut across the grain (‘end-grain’) rather than along it, as in woodcut. As a consequence the tool used is different: instead of being cut with a knife, the wood is engraved with a graver … sections of the block can be lowered with scrapers in order to make them print more lightly, as grey rather than black. The method of printing is the same as for the woodcut. The use of the word ‘engraving’ in the name of this process often creates confusion; it refers only to the method of cutting the block and does not imply that it is printed in the intaglio method.”¹

The eighteenth-century illustrator and publisher Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) is recognized as the most important name in the history of wood-engraving, because the techniques he perfected enabled this form of illustration to reach an artistic and commercial peak.

History of British Birds vol. 2 title pageAmong the books in our collection is an 1826 edition in two volumes of Bewick’s History of British Birds. First published in 1797 (Land Birds) and 1804 (Water Birds), this work was immensely popular in Britain in its time. Modern readers of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre might recognize it as the book that Jane is reading in Chapter 1 of that novel. She lingers over the illustrations in some detail, and it can be surprising to realize that these are not the primary pictures–the bird portraits–but the small vignettes or “tail pieces” that Bewick placed every few pages, at the end of each section. Here are a few, with Brontë’s descriptions:

“I cannot tell what sentiment haunted the quite solitary churchyard, with its inscribed headstone, its gate, its two trees, its low horizon, girdled by a broken wall, and its newly-risen crescent, attesting the hour of eventide”
“The fiend pinning down the thief’s pack behind him…”
“…the black horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows”

Brontë chose to emphasize examples with bleak and gloomy subject matter; but with over 300 vignettes across the two volumes, there is a much wider variety than this. Bewick had a rather dark (and sometimes crude) sense of humor. For more about Bewick and his art, I recommend the entertaining biography Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow.

Here is a small selection of Bewick’s humor:And one last tail piece to end this post where it began, with fishing:

¹Griffiths, Antony, Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 22-23.

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