How one of Roger Brookes' wooden fish carvings ended up nestled between the works of two of Britain's greatest ever portrait artists, is a fascinating tale of guts, determination and talent. And it's one that has its beginnings in London in the early 1980s.
“It was a nutty time,” says Roger, “There was lots of money about, property prices were soaring and people were taking chances and doing daft things. And I hated my job – I worked in the head office of the Burton Group in Oxford Circus as a number cruncher and it really wasn't me. I was so fed up that I ended up having a moan to a friend of mine who'd come round for coffee one evening.
“He said to me: ‘Rog, we both love fishing. Well, why don't you get into stuffing fish? I've heard there's decent money in that.' And I said: ‘Yeah mate, maybe I will', but I didn't really stop to think about it.” The next morning, Roger found an envelope had been stuffed under his door. In it was £4,500 and a note from his friend saying: “Go on mate. Do it, become a fish stuffer.” Roger then pauses, takes a sip of his coffee and smiles before continuing. “I really couldn't believe my eyes; that someone would have such faith in me was incredible. Well, that gave me the nudge I needed! So, I did, I went to work that morning and quit my job right there and then.”
That afternoon, Roger went to the local library and took out the only book he could find on taxidermy. And then on his way home he went into the fish mongers and bought a whiting for 20p. “And I took it home and stuffed it”, he says casually. “Was it any good?” I enquire. “It was awful mate, absolutely bloody horrendous!” he answers between great guffaws of laughter. “If I'd stuffed it with my old socks, it would probably have looked better!” But, the rest is history as they say, and before he knew it he had his own workshop in the East End and was calling himself a fish stuffer. And within a year, people were referring to him as the best in the business.
But having grown up in the far north of Scotland, Roger yearned for the peace and tranquillity of the countryside. So, he and his girlfriend Annie (now wife of 20 years) decided to up sticks and head to rural Herefordshire. Annie got a job working for local government pretty quickly, and Roger found a workshop in Burton Court in the stable block of an old country house. “And I started fish stuffing there,” he says. “Until that fateful day of course.”
Roger was tucked away in his workshop one afternoon when there was a knock at the door. “Bear in mind that this place is in the middle of nowhere, and as far as I was aware, no one knew about me,” he says. “Anyway, this old chap was stood there, and he said to me: ‘Are you the bloke who does the fish?'” He then handed Roger an old sepia photograph of a strapping young lad holding a salmon up by its tail. “The photo had been taken before the war,” continues Roger. “It was of him stood on the bank of the Wye with this great big fish. And he said to me: ‘I caught that fish when I was 20, and I just really want to see it again. Can you do something for me?' And because I liked a challenge, I said: ‘Yes, no problem, come back in a few weeks'.
“I had no idea what I was going to do! I had heard about fish carving, but I really didn't have a clue. I went down to the timber yard and bought some pine, glued it up and made a fish shape and then went at it with the very rudimentary tools I had in my toolbox. Once I'd painted it though, I thought: ‘That doesn't look so bad.' I suppose I had the confidence of ignorance.”
In The Field at the time was an advert by a chap by the name of Simon Brett - who had a monopoly on the sale of collectible old wooden fish - which Roger just happened to see. And with his heart in his mouth, Roger phoned him and asked if he'd like to see this fish he had just carved. “I went to his house in Moreton-in-Marsh, and showed it to him,” continues Roger. “And he thought it was alright and said that he might be interested in offering his clients a new fish as well as an antique one as a combined service. So, he gave me his son's first salmon as a commission.” And before long Roger decided to pack it in as a fish stuffer and just focus on carving. That was in 1991, and he hasn't looked back since.
But until Roger went to his first CLA Game Fair in the early 1990s, almost all of his work was for collectors rather than anglers. And at that first game fair - at which he'd managed to blag a bit of space on the Salmon and Trout Association's stand - he was chipping away and exhibiting a fish when Tarquin Millington-Drake of Frontiers paid him a visit. “He told me that the classic big fish rivers were in Norway, which I didn't know, and that I ought to carve people's fish for them. And of course Tarquin had clients fishing out there, and he soon started to send me work from these guys who were catching and releasing these huge fish and coming home with little more than a photograph.” Over the years Roger has had a lot of work from Tarquin. “I've had as many as six fish from certain clients, and as a matter of fact, I think Tarquin himself has had nine!” adds Roger.
Over time, Roger's name has spread, and today the majority of his commissions come from anglers with about 90 per cent made up of Norwegian and Russian salmon. And of course, his carvings are a record - a lasting documentary - of these enormous fish that have been caught over the past 20 years on rivers like Norway's Alta. Indeed, since 1991, Roger has had the honour of becoming the Alta fishermen's historian, and as Tarquin pointed out to me recently, these extraordinary fish will be gone one day, but Roger's records will still be hanging on people's walls as a reminder. No doubt this association between Roger Brookes and these iconic Alta salmon will continue for many years to come.
Process and presentation
Roger keeps the presentation as traditional as possible, replicating the way they were first produced in the late 1880s in Fochabers – where the tradition of fish carving originated. They come mounted on an oak board - always stained the same colour - with the traditional gold lettering denoting the usual who, where, what and when. Everything apart from gluing up the mount board and the lettering – which is now laser cut – is done by Roger. In keeping the presentation consistent, Roger is also adding his signature to each individual fish. “I think they are buying more than just a service,” he says. “They are buying something individual but always recognisable as one of mine.” In other words: a work of art.
The fact that all of Roger's work is done from photographs is significant; it means that there is never the need to kill a fish. And on a river like the Alta, where the vast majority is now catch and release, the taxidermist is out of the loop. So, you either have nothing, or you can have it carved.
So, if someone wants their fish recreated in wood, all they need to do is take a couple of snaps and some measurements for perspective. Nose-to-tail and girth measurements are most important. “It sounds crazy, but because everyone has mobile phones with digital cameras these days, it's really straight-forward.” The irony of this is not lost on Roger - an artisan of one of the oldest art forms in existence.
First, a life-sized stencil of the fish is created, making any adjustments for photographic distortions which is then transferred onto a piece of jelutong – a wood that comes from a sustainable source in South East Asia that Roger discovered by accident. “I got the heads-up from an American decoy carver by complete coincidence,” he says. “I initially used pine which was a nightmare because it is all splintery and inconsistent in texture and grain. Jelutong is soft, maintains its shape, carves well, is straight grained and stable, and it finishes easily.”
In his tiny workshop where everything except for his bench and tools is covered in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, Roger shows me how he then cuts around the stencil to turn the block of wood into a very rough fish shape. And then after that, it is all done by hand – the carving, sanding, painting and finishing. And the attention to detail is truly incredible; each and every scale is individually stamped on by hand.
In the late 1800s, John Tully became the recognised master of the art of fish carving, and by the turn of the century, his carvings had become highly sought-after, collectible items. But he had the help of his wife Duie who was a dab hand with a paintbrush and did all of the painting of Tully's fish for him. Roger however, does both. His carving and his painting are of an equally impressive standard.
“My clients like the fact that their fish is created by hand from start to finish,” he says. And of course each salmon is different. Whether it's an early fish, a late fish, a cock or a hen, they all have individual characteristics. And they vary in proportion and colouration from region to region and even from river to river too. “And the spot pattern is like the salmon's fingerprint; each fish is different,”adds Roger. So, it's crucial that he gets each fish to resemble the one in the photograph as closely as he possibly can. “I feel very much obliged and driven to make a portrait of the fish, and for that reason I only ever work on one fish at a time,” he says.
Roger sees the whole process as being very much divided into two parts. “So much so that I think you engage different parts of your brain,” he says. “The carving is tactile, three dimensional and physical. It is everything that a sculpture is. And then on the other hand, there's the painting which is slow and painstaking; it can't be rushed.” As I watch Roger putting a few finishing touches to an enormous salmon he has been working on for the past four weeks, I understand why the turnaround from commission to completion is in excess of six months.
Just as I am starting to pack my camera and notepad away – our interview having come to an end - I happen to notice a photograph tacked to his workshop wall. It's of a family gathered around a young lad who is proudly holding up a carving of a substantial pike. “And this?” I enquire as Roger switches off the lights and follows me out the door. “Well, there's actually a bit of story to that”, he says.
I eventually coerce a modestly understated Roger into elaborating. “I delivered that pike to this, let's just say, very prestigious address in the south of England. Well, after we'd had afternoon tea together and the fish had been seen by everybody, the owner of the house called me over and said: ‘Come, I'll show you where we're going to hang it.' And so we walked down this most wonderful corridor - it was absolutely full of these incredible works of art. And then suddenly he stopped and said: ‘Here. This is where we're going to hang your fish. We're going to move the Gainsborough a bit to the left, and we'll move that Joshua Reynolds a bit to the right. It will go just there.' I thought to myself, Rog, this is a moment to remember.”