No. 7, February 2007

This Costly Fish Catcht In's Weil All These Desire To Tast As Wel As Feele. at All times in Season

  Click the image to enlarge it While the Department of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum is undoubtedly the single most significant repository of English single sheet prints of the period, there are several other important collections both in Britain and abroad, knowledge of which is essential for a proper overview of the genre, and we begin our sampling of these with the present print from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

It formed part of the collection of Francis Douce (1757-1834), former Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum, who left the bulk of his personal collection to the Bodleian Library, but most of whose thousands of English and continental single sheets were recently transferred to the Ashmolean. Douce began assembling his print collection in order to provide authentic, contemporary illustrations for the socio-historical works he compiled, most notably his Illustrations of Shakespeare, and of ancient manners: with dissertations on the clowns and fools of Shakespeare; on the collection of popular tales entitled Gesta Romanorum; and on the English Morris Dance, first published in 1807. Though this enormous collection still awaits adequate cataloguing, already a number of significant unique English print items have been discovered within it. It is hoped to include at least some of these in the British Printed Images to 1700 database.

Our present subject well illustrates the significance of the Douce collection. It represents a variant on a theme of which various printed images survive, in which a lobster-pot is depicted as a metaphor for marriage: once within the lobster-pot of marriage there is no escape - once in, you cannot get out alive! 1 The only English example of this from our period is a title-page, itself based on a Dutch one: an eel-pot/trap/lobster-pot appears on the title-page of The confessions of the new married couple, being the second part of the Ten pleasures of marriage. Relating the further delights and contentments that ly mask’d under the bands of wedlock. This claims to have been written by A. Marsh. Typogr. and to have been printed in London in the jear [sic – a revealingly Dutch mistake!] 1683. Marsh is otherwise unknown and the imprint is in any case false, as the book was evidently – to judge from the Dutch initials and ornaments - printed in Amsterdam for the English market, being, in fact, a translation of a work that had appeared in that city four years earlier under the title De Biegt der Getroude… by Jeroen Sweerts. 2 The engraved title-page depicts a devil or satyr, a jester’s bauble in one hand, sitting on a lobster-pot, and a bird-catcher’s limed twig beside him – the metaphorics are clear: marriage is a trap, a snare, and the devil or lust (if the figure is a satyr) is the fisherman or fowler. He sits like a confessor within a confessional, listening to the newly-married husband and wife who whisper their woes through the grates on either side. In the foreground are more ominous items, a mouse in a trap, and a pair of shackles. The engraved frontispiece to the first part of the work, published the previous year, features a jester with a rat in a cage!

An elaborate print on the same theme is to be found in Adriaen Van der Venne’s Afbeeldinghe des Huwelyx onder der Gedaante van een Fuik (1658) (the Afbeeldinghe des Huwelyx onder de Gedaente van een Fuyk by Salomon Saverij, after van der Venne, appears in the 1655 Amsterdam edition of Jacob Cats's collected works). An English version derived from this, entitled Cupids Decoy or an Emblem of the state of Matrimony, printed and sold by J. How and conjecturally dated 1710, is, according to the Eureka database, to be found uniquely in Princeton University Library. A print with this title was still being sold in 1786, 3 and it is evidently represented by a superb large woodcut-illustrated sheet of a gigantic lobster-pot in which couples are trapped, Printed and Sold by Robert Sayer opposite Fetter Lane Fleetstreet, and hence dating from the mid eighteenth century, which survives uniquely in the Douce collection. 4

It is a variant of the motif of seventeenth-century date which we show here, depicting a pot baited with a naked woman who sits within a weel or wicker trap for catching fish, especially eels. 5 Until recently no English example of this was known, but a hitherto unknown item in Douce’s collection is a magnificent sheet entitled, This Costly Fish Catcht In’s Weil All These Desire To Tast As Wel As Feele. at All times in Season. Though, sadly, bearing no imprint information, this unique sheet must, on costume grounds, have been issued c.1650. In this case, the motif is probably of German origin – hence similar to A New yeares guift for shrews (September 2006). In one popular format, the woman is shown proffering a drink to the man about to enter the wicker trap, but he is also often dressed as a fool and surrounded by others so dressed – as on a painted glass pane for Hippolit Brunolt painted in 1562 by Andreas Hör of St. Gallen, a sketch by the Swiss artist Daniel Lindtmayer dated 1571 for another pane (two further examples are known by the same artist), 6 and painted miniatures in at least four Stammbücher/alba amicorum (in one painted c.1625, it is a nun who sits in the lobster-pot while a monk swims towards her), 7 not forgetting a mid-sixteenth century German woodcut. 8

The design of the sheet shown here derives from an engraving in the influential Pugillus Facetiarum (Strasbourg, 1608, 1618, 1643, etc.) which shows a man (the fisherman) pulling the foot of the woman in the eel-pot, while a soldier, a monk (or priest?) and an old man on crutches look on. But it is strange that our English engraver has in fact depicted the woman not in a weil as his title implies – i.e., a wicker trap, the kind of construction depicted in the German model – but in a hooped net. More significantly he has also innovated on his likely model by introducing the rather lumpen figure of Doll, whose speech makes it clear that she is jealous of the attention that all types of men give to more attractive women, and hands Peter the fisherman a knife, urging him to cut the cord; let her sink – thus, implicit criticism of female jealousy is added to that of male lasciviousness.

It is also noticeable that the engraver of our English sheet has added the lawyer to the cast of male fools – a profession which has, of course, always been a staple of satire, and which is satirised in several other seventeenth-century prints. The verses under the image present the reactions of the various figures to their surprising catch. The full text is as follows:

A [Fisherman, Peter]

Poter [sic: i.e., Peter] in’s Weil by chance did light
Vpon a Mayd with Belly white.
Hee drew full hard, and layd about,
With all his force, to get her out
This Fish was such a goodly sight,
Hee longed for it, with delight.

B [Monk, Father Steven]

Father Steven who stood by
His hands out from’s sleeves, did cry,
Pull hard Peeter this present,
Let mee have to my Co[n]vent.
Doe so go, and make all even,
All thy sins shall be forgiven.

C [Soldier, Robert the Cavalier]

Young Robert, to get such spoil,
His blood within his veins did boyl.
With gold that he had filld his purse,
All for this he will disburse.
Peter said he you are Old,
Heeres coin, go Drink, keep out ye cold.

D [Doll]

Doll heard what each man said,
She vext, and was half dismaid,
Hold, she cried tis time I think
To cut the cord; let her sink.
You all strive to set her free,
Not one of you will pull for mee.

E [Lawyer]

The learned Lawer he intends,
And for her, pleads, thus, my friends.
Bee not so earnest, for this chere,
In time may cost you all full deare.
It hath cost me pounds and pence,
Tis costly fare, with great expence.

F [Old Man, Grandsire Hop] 9

Grandsire Hop said see you mee,
That haue scars 10 one limb left free.
With Crutches I can hardly creep,
And yet I cannot chuse but peep.
The pox and gout wring mee sore,
Yet can I not give it ore. 11

Ashmolean Museum, Douce Prints W.1.2 (413). Dimensions of original: 292 mm x 415 mm


The motif is of some antiquity in literature: see P. Murgatroyd, 'Amatory Hunting, Fishing and Fowling', Latomus, 43 (1984), 362-8. Back to context...
The Dutch title-page is conveniently reproduced in S. Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches (New York, 1987), fig. 221. Back to context...
Cupids Decoy or an Emblem of the State of Matrimony appears in Carington Bowles' catalogue of 1786, p. 93, no. 32: pace Sheila O'Connell, The Popular Print in England (London, 1999), p. 113, it will not have been ‘an oversize bird trap’. Back to context...
Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, Douce Prints a. 49 (102-3) 84. Sayer's floruit is given as 1747-75; a regular line of descent is Stent-> Overton -> Henry Overton -> Sayer [Alexander Globe, Peter Stent (Vancouver, 1985), p. 220]. The fashion is too late for the print to have been first issued by Stent, but it could well have been an Overton original. Back to context...
OED s.v. weel 2. Back to context...
F. Thöne, Daniel Lindtmayer 1552-1606/7 (Zurich, 1975), p. 142 – a reference I owe to the kindness of Lucas Wüthrich. Back to context...
One of the four, now destroyed, was formerly in the Louvre, the illustration is reproduced in J.-C. Margolin, Histoire du Rébus (Paris, 1986), fig. 177; the remainder are found in the albums of Johan Reichwein (dating from 1569-95), Martin Buchner (1573-84), and Paul Jenisch (1579-1647), this last miniature probably painted c. 1625. For bibliographical details, see W. Klose, Corpus Alborum Amicorum (Stuttgart, 1988): monk swims towards nun in lobster-pot [fol. 155r of Jenisch’s album]; woman sitting in lobster-pot catches man [p. 253 of Reichwein’s album]; woman sitting in lobster–pot catches men dressed as fools [p. 85 of Buchner’s album]. Back to context...
Reproduced in ed. G. Langemeyer et al., Bild als Waffe: Mittel und Motive der Karikatur in fünf Jahrhunderten (München, 1984), abb. 191. Back to context...
Probably not a satirical name, cf. OED s.v. hop, from Defoe, Memoirs of a Cavalier (1724), p. 235, Away he hops with his crutch. Back to context...
scars = scarce. Back to context...
i.e., “Yet can I not give it o'er”, i.e. “Yet can I not give it over”, i.e. “Yet I can't give it up”. Back to context...