February 24, 2017


        We’re going swimming this morning, so that’s a good enough reason to show you this curious sixteenth century wood block printed instruction manual about swimming.  The book itself, De Arte Natandi by Everard Digby, was the first English instruction manual on swimming and was very influential.  It includes a guide to different strokes and methods of floating as well as attention to matters of safety.  It also includes copious woodcut illustrations.       
        Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, I can’t find any record of the artist who illustrated Digby’s work.  But whoever he (or she, but probably he) was, he came up with a clever method of making the more than 40 illustrations all large and beautiful without having to go through all the trouble of carving more than 40 different scenes.  There are five different large blocks showing detailed landscapes of rivers, but each of these blocks was made with a rectangular hole in the middle.  Each of the different strokes or swimming techniques could then be carved on a small block and inserted into one of the landscape blocks for printing.  Some of the blocks fit in more smoothly than others, but I think it’s a very clever system.
        This first background block has some cows by the riverside, and a man who looks as if he’s about to fall into the water accidentally, but I’m most intrigued by the swimmer on his smaller separate block.  At first I thought he was holding two birds, but now I think it’s a hawk and something else, though what I can’t tell.  A lure, perhaps?  Whatever it is, is Digby
providing instruction for falconry while swimming?  It seems an odd and amusing choice.
        Here are two illustrations that use the same background so you can see how the artist could  make a variety of swimming poses fit into his framework.  I like the house in the background, and the man in the lower left getting undressed, or possibly putting his sock back on; I’m not sure which.  An Elizabethan gentleman had an awful lot of clothing to get off and on in order to go swimming.
        And one last scene, with the river going horizontally, a charming windmill on the hill, and a magnificent sunshine.  Although it’s unseasonably warm here today, we will not be swimming under New England’s February sun, but will be indoors.  And we’ll be playing with balls and pool noodles rather than hawks.  Still, no doubt we owe something to Everard Digby and his ingenious illustrator for their influence on the Art of Swimming.

[Pictures: Four wood block print illustrations from De arte natandi libri duo by Everard Digby, 1587 (Images from Wellcome Library).]

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