This work is number twenty in the 2017-2018 project Dear Gilbert,…. Song for the Ichthyologist, which forms twenty limited editions and four unique works.
Old Wife, Enoplosus armatus, is endemic to temperate waters around Australia and is a striking looking fish with its bands of brown/black and high dorsal fins. It is also known as Angelfish, Bastard Dory, Double Scalare, Moonlighter and Zebrafish. The name “old wife” apparently refers to the grinding sound of its teeth when it is caught.
In Marine Fishes of Australia (1966), Gilbert P Whitley gives an informative historical background to the Old Wife: In 1655 the naturalist Moufet wrote, ‘Old Wives (because of their mumping and sour countenance) are as dainty and wholesome of substance, as they are large in body.’ He was referring to the File Fish and Leatherjacket tribe, rather than to the fish (then undiscovered) which we in Australia term Old Wife, and which also ‘when caught grinds its teeth and grumbles like an old woman’. Our fish was first figured in White’s Voyage to new South Wales in 1790.
Amongst the Australian Museum archives, I found the letterpress block for Old Wife wrapped in brown paper with the image stuck to the front. Whitley had elegantly written in the corner: This is my sketch of an Old Wife – G.P.W.
Jacqueline F Gribbin
Relief block courtesy of the Australian Museum