feature By: Robert Sohrweide | October, 21
George Boyd, Seabrook, New Hampshire
“I am looking for something small, of high quality and reasonably priced. For my fiancé. He loves to hunt. In fact, he’s in Maine now, hunting woodcock. I bought him a miniature Canada goose last year, carved by a New Hampshire man, and I hope you have more of his birds.”
The clerk smiles. “Waterfowl last year, perhaps an upland bird this year. I think I have something.”
The young man reappears carrying a small object wrapped in tissue. He unwraps protective layers to reveal a ruffed grouse.
“This bird just came in from a man in New Hampshire whose birds we buy when they are available. They sell quickly. This is our only grouse. Of course, he’d call it a pa’tridge. New England, you know.”
She turns the carving in her hands, admiring the delicate paint. “Sturdy little thing, isn’t she? With a frisky look, a real gleam in her eye. I don’t see a label or signature. Who did the work?”
“George Boyd, miss, of Seabrook, New Hampshire. He doesn’t sign his work. I know it’s his because I just received his invoice.”
“I’ll take it.”
She paid twenty-five dollars. Abercrombie & Fitch paid Boyd fifty cents a bird. Today, Boyd’s miniatures fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on species and scarcity.
George Boyd of New Hampshire was a market gunner, a shoemaker and a remarkable decoy carver. He ended his career as a carver of miniature birds – upland game, waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds.
Born in 1873 in Seabrook, on the edge of a salt marsh reaching into Massachusetts, Boyd supplied the Boston game market. Once married, he found market gunning too chancy an occupation. Casting about, he discovered he could “turn a profit” by combining his hunting and shoemaking talents to create decoys.
Boyd’s well-designed rigs of shorebirds and waterfowl spawned requests for miniatures. Hunters loved his little birds. Boyd found the miniatures easy to produce and a demand for them that reached from Seabrook to Boston to New York. Boyd eased away from decoys and made miniatures.
Three men frequented a hunting club – Samuel Allen, George Boyd and Edward Papin. Their friendship changed the world of miniature carving. Papin and Allen gave Boyd a book, Bird Portraits in Colors. Using the images in this book as patterns for his painting, Boyd carved 150 miniatures for Papin and 200 for Allen.
“George, that miniature ruffed grouse turned out well. Thought about doing a wild turkey?”
“Sam, I’ve got your quail.”
“George, I’d like a pa’tridge like the one you did for Ed. And a ringneck pheasant.”
George Boyd’s miniatures are whimsical, folksy works of art. The birds seem to look at you as if they’ve just heard a joke. The angled beak, jutting from the lower part of the head, and gleaming eyes give them personality and appeal.
Boyd used hundreds of tiny, delicate stokes of the brush to create an impressionistic, textured appearance of feathers. Today, almost all of Boyd’s miniatures possess an intricate pattern of cracks. This craquelure, formed by the gradual shrinking of the wood under the paint, forms a patina very pleasing to the eye. An uncracked Boyd is a rare bird, indeed.
Elmer Crowell, East Harwich, Massachusetts
In June of 1932, a grizzled New England bird hunter walked into Elmer Crowell’s shop on Cape Cod. Crowell knew he was a bird hunter; he ignored the miniature and mantel songbirds and went straight to the game birds. The man picked up a miniature woodcock, turned it in his gnarled hands. “You got this bird right. I’ve shot a lot of woodcock in New Hampshire. Heard about you back there. Saw some of your black duck decoys being used up north in the Connecticut River Lakes. They had your brand on the bottom. Didn’t know you carved woodcock and pa’tridge.”
Crowell said, “I carve them. I used to hunt them, too. Here and over on the mainland. We had many birds when I was younger – quail and pa’tridge and woodcock. I remember handling them, kind of memorizing their shape and colors. Funny, first I shot birds for one market, and now I’m carving them for another.”
The old bird hunter’s nostrils flared above his moustache as he inhaled the scent of pine and cedar, oil paint and turpentine; wood shavings were underfoot, sawdust filled the air. He sneezed and watched the dust dance in the afternoon sunlight. The tools, brushes, paints and carvings were lined up in rows. A place for everything, everything in its place. Crowell was a proud and neat master of wood and paint. The hunter nodded in acknowledgement.
The old gunner smiled, “My name is Tom Johnson.”
“Pleased to meet you. Call me Elmer. Always happy to meet a bird hunter.”
They walked over to the table. Crowell picked up a full-sized ruffed grouse, a decorative mantel bird, and handed it to the pa’tridge hunter. Johnson turned it in his hands and inspected the carving. The grouse had something special; it felt like the spirit of the bird was in the wood. Remarkable, simply remarkable.
“I don’t carve many mantel-sized grouse. Most of my pa’tridge are miniatures. This one’s a special order for an old friend. He’ll be pleased.”
“Pleased,” said Johnson. “He’ll be well north of pleased. This is the finest upland bird carving I’ve ever seen. Thank you.”
“You are welcome,” said Crowell.
Before Johnson left the shop, he paid Crowell eight dollars for two miniatures, a woodcock and a ruffed grouse. Charming, friendly and proud of his work, Crowell was also a salesman.
Anthony Elmer Crowell was born in East Harwich, Massachusetts, a Cape Cod village, and lived and worked there all his life. Saltwater, the shore, waterfowl and game birds became the linchpins of his career. An enthusiastic hunter, Crowell, in his youth, shot shorebirds and waterfowl for the Boston market. As his reputation as a gunner and a live-decoy handler grew, he began to manage hunting camps. And, more important for collectors of fine Americana, he carved and painted wooden decoys to supplement his flock of live tollers.
Two hunters famous in their time, Charles Ashley Hardy and Dr. John C. Phillips, hired Crowell to manage their wildfowling camps and took notice of his exceptional skill with knife and brush. As a result, Crowell produced decoys and decoratives for his hunting clients. In 1912, aged 50, Crowell, confident in his abilities, took a deep breath and became a full-time carver, working out of his house in East Harwich. He took great pleasure in hosting gunners, birders and tourists; many sportsmen came to order decoys and, after placing their orders, left with his miniatures or decorative birds.
Elmer Crowell, because of the beauty of his pieces, the quality of his workmanship, his immense output of decoys, miniatures and mantel birds over a long and storied lifetime, became known as “The Father of Decorative Carving.” This man started what has become a cottage industry and created the standard by which all decorative carvers are measured.
Allen James King, Providence, Rhode Island
Providence, Rhode Island, was recovering from the “Great Hurricane of ’38.” Maurice Freeman surveyed the storm damage – mud, water, shards of glass, shingles, broken bricks piled high where men with shovels, pry bars, saws and axes worked among shattered shops and splintered trees.
Something caught Freeman’s eye. He reached past a jagged branch of a chestnut tree and pulled a piece of painted wood from the wet. With his handkerchief, he wiped clean the small object. A tiny, carved, beautifully detailed woodcock emerged. Freeman marveled at its beauty. Finally, he found a signature
– “A. J. King.”
Freeman, a representative of “The Crossroads of Sport,” knew what he had found. The hurricane had broken the window of the shop in which King’s carvings had been displayed and washed one out into the street. Freeman was soon in touch with King and visited his shop in Scituate to see other carvings. Then Freeman arranged for the first shipment of King’s miniatures to Crossroads of Sport in New York City.
King sold singles, male/female sets and pairs with chicks. By vocation, King was a jeweler and a taxidermist. After hours, he was both a hunter and a birdwatcher. He knew game birds’ shapes and coloring from mounting specimens for hunters and museums. As a jeweler, he was accustomed to working on small pieces. His experience and talent resulted in miniature carved pieces of art. The birds were small, miniatures of miniatures really, about half the size of his competitors’ carvings. Little jewels of wood and paint, they were more detailed both in color and design than Crowell or Boyd pieces. Crossroads of Sport and King could not keep up with demand.
The Crossroads of Sport continued selling his work until King’s death in 1962. King was a “late bloomer;” he began to carve in his early 50s and was 56 years old when he started shipping birds to New York. He died in his 80s – after 25 years of carving his unique miniatures.
Gunners bought miniatures to commemorate a great hunt, a fine dog, a valued hunting partner, a once-in-a-lifetime double. The carvers sold memories. Each bird on a gunner’s shelf told a story – in miniature.
These three men – George Boyd, Elmer Crowell and A. J. King – with their imagination and skills built the foundations of modern game bird carving.