Special Feature:
The Arte of Angling and Other Stories

an introduction and appeal by Andrew Herd

or those of you who do not read The American Flyfisher, and if you don't, you should, Fred Buller has been generous enough to allow me to reproduce an essay (which remains his copyright) about the art in The Arte of Angling published by William Samuel in 1577. If you are not familiar with this book, which is likely, because there is only one copy of the original in existance, Fred's article gives some interesting insights into the nature of the author and the times he lived in.

You might ask why I should add this piece to a site dedicated to the history of fly fishing. Well, I have my reasons! To be sure, The Arte has very little about fly fishing in it, but it is important to us, not only because it is only the second book on fishing printed in the English language, but because when complete, it included a list of flies. Frustratingly, these are alluded to in the text, but the page with the dressings is missing from the surviving copy of The Arte.

The possibilities of that list of flies tantalise me. From the pages that survive, The Arte is a unique book, written by an accomplished fisherman, and as far as its tactics go, it owes very little to The Treatyse. If the list of flies has anything in common with the rest of the text, then it is possible that the author did not borrow them from The Treatyse, and that would give us dressings nearly a hundred years older than the list published by Cotton in the fifth edition of Walton's Complete Angler. I'm sure I don't have to say more than to point out that if another, complete, copy of The Arte were to be found containing that list of flies, it would turn the fly fishing world upside down.

Now there are good reasons why only one copy of Samuel's book might have survived, and if you want to read about this, click here. But don't forget that the copy we have was 'lost' for nearly four hundred years, and only came to light in 1953. Given that this was one of the five books that Walton used as a source for the Complete Angler (the others included The Treatyse and works by Barker, Venables and Gesner), I doubt it was a very rare book even in the seventeenth century. When Walton quoted from earlier works, he chose popular books written by experts in the subject, and it only takes a cursory reading of The Arte to realise that it belonged to this category. Of course, Walton did more than quote from The Arte, he borrowed huge chunks of it, and Samuel's book was the inspiration for the entire style of the Complete Angler.

Perhaps it is ironic that Walton's work went on to more than four hundred editions, and Samuel's was lost for four centuries. Perhaps there is only one damaged copy of The Arte in existance. But if the one we have could escape attention for four hundred years, maybe there are other copies of this unassuming little work out there? They won't necessarily be in England, either, because it is more than possible that early settlers took this book to America with them, and it is always possible that a copy is hidden somewhere, bound into the back of another book.

So keep your eyes open. You might just make history by finding a second copy. If you do, its historical value will exceed its monetary value several fold, and you will need some fancy footwork to avoid being killed in the rush of book dealers and historians that come your way.

Now read Fred Buller's article.

Andrew Herd 2001.


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