Saturday, May 7, 2011

"The Elder Rig"

It's been said that in order to find yourself, you must first be lost.  So it was but a few months ago that I was "lost" in the carving world.  A man without a country so to speak.  I was struggling with carving and painting and finding my place in the carving community.

That all started to change when I read Geoff Vine's current article in Wildfowl Carving Magazine.  He has written a wonderful two part tutorial on the "Blair" style decoys, including some much needed blending techniques for painting.  After devouring the first part, I started trading emails and phone calls with a few noted carvers, namely Jode Hillman and George Strunk (see links to the right for each carvers website).  My ever increasing interest lead me down a road of further research into the "Delaware River School of Carving", mostly likely unmatched on a historical basis.

To be sure, another couple of individuals who I'm constantly "Googling" are Sean Sutton and Rick Brown (again, links on the right).  While Sean has since evolved into one of the most complete carvers a man could hope to be, Rick still pumps out eye-appealing, classic Delaware style.

A couple of internet forum conversations, in which it was impressed upon me that the "Blair" style is a great starting point for someone attempting oil paints, led me to carve and paint my own, not to mention an "English" bird, whose style I was beginning to really enjoy.  I did things a little different I guess.  For one, my decoys stink, which is different from the masters of course.  Secondly, I wanted to deepen the colors of the birds, making them richer.  This is readily apparent in the breast/side pockets of each.  I'm color blind, so what you see is what I see (or like when I see it).  After 35 years, I've learned to live with it.  Lastly, these decoys have no eyes...nor will they.  I wanted to carve and paint varying styles with as little monetary input as I could get away with.  I figure (and this is the great thing about carving your own decoys) that I could add anything I wanted on subsequent birds if I enjoyed the style and they turned out.

I started with the "Blair" style and fell into the "English".  I don't believe you can have one without the other, and make your Delaware rig complete.

In any case, some history:

In the late 1800's, two men off the Delaware River carved some of the finest gunning decoys to ever grace the planet.  Besides the how nice the decoys were, forgetting how sought after as collectables they are today, the thing that caught my eye as much as any other was the fact that both "styles" of carvings are touched with just a little mystery.  Those men?  John Blair and John English, respectively.

According to the "Father of Decoy Collecting" Joel Barber, author of "Wildfowl Decoys", Mr. Blair was a sportsman who carved all his decoys and hired out a Philadelphia portrait painter "of considerable note" to paint the birds.  Later, Bill Mackey stated that John Blair himself was a portrait painter.  It was thought that Blair was in fact a banker, not a portrait painter. In any case, the decoys were so elegant that they were carried to and from the Delaware River, each in it's own canvas bag for protection.  Another issue is that at the time of the penning, editing, and printing of "Floating Sculpture - the Decoys of the Delaware River" in 1982, at least 100 "Blair" decoys where known to exist, having been found in 9 different states.  Mr. Bob White, a Delaware River decoy expert AND an extremely accomplished decoy carver himself stated in "Floating Sculpture" that for 100 to have survived a century, he would have had to have carved thousands.  Years later, when his grandson Colonel John Blair III was asked who painted his granddads decoys, he responded, "A trolley painter..."  According to "Floating Sculpture", John Blair was in fact a wheelwright.  He made and repaired wheels and also made carriages AND most likely was the owner of a carriage making firm.  The trolley painter was most likely in the employ of Blair, painting carriages for the elite of Philadelphia.

Now, let's move on to the John English mystery.

To date, my favorite "style" of decoy.  The long and the short of it was that many of English's birds were given credit to another master decoy carver of the time and area, John Dawson.  According to "Floating Sculpture", "Now we know that all of the sculptured classic "Dawsons" are in reality repaited John English decoys.

Hope you enjoyed a bit of a history lesson (as I understand it in any case) and my feeble interpretation of two masters of American folk art.

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