Shooting afield without the aid of a trained dog is very poor sport indeed… …for it is not only the large number of birds brought to bag that inspires and gratifies, but rather it is the fine performance of his faithful dog that leads to the highest appreciation and enjoyment of the sport.
— Ed F. Haberlein, from his book The Amateur Trainer, first edition published 1893
Bird dog art
It was love at first sight.
My love affair with bird dogs began in my childhood when I first saw those romantic illustrations of pointers, setters, spaniels and retrievers that were featured on the posters and calendars published by ammunition manufacturers. Most memorable are the wonderful hunting scenes commissioned by the Winchester, Western, Remington, UMC, and Peters companies.
Spellbound and mesmerized by those idyllic images, I became an acolyte of the credo of bird hunting and a devotee of gun dogs of all breeds. To this day I remain a sucker for gun dog art.
We bird hunters of a certain age are intimately familiar with those illustrations and prints that were popular from the late 19th century through the 1950s, images of elegant hunting dogs in action that seemed to appear everywhere in that sportsmen’s world to which we so fervently aspired – the trap range clubhouse, hardware store, service station, the musty farmers exchange office, even the walls of the milk house or tool shed. We studied them, memorized them, and projected ourselves into them.
There we were, afield with a pair of picture perfect setters, classic double gun in hand, unflustered by the rise of the covey of quail, ready to take a right-left double and then release the dogs from point to make the retrieves. Until the reverie was shattered by an uncle shouting, “Will you hurry up with that damned pitchfork and throw the manure out of these stalls?!”
Hunting dog art also adorned shotshell boxes, postcards, and the covers of Field & Stream and Outdoor Life magazines. They fired my imagination, caught me by the heartstrings, and never let go. I desperately wanted one of those dogs. My mind burned to own, train and go afield with a graceful, steadfast bird dog before me. Pheasants, grouse, quail, woodcock, ducks – all would fall to the unerring nose of my partner and the renowned accuracy of my shooting.
The artistic style of those illustrations was far different from the intricately detailed realism practiced by more contemporary wildlife artists and print makers. Those older depictions of outdoor sport more closely resemble the works of neo-impressionist painters or perhaps the romantic artists of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. That is as it should be; memories of bird hunting are more romance than realism.
Over the past few years there has been a revival of works from the bygone era of bird dog art, or at least a surge in interest in re-creations of hunting illustrations from a past that we remember as more slow-paced, more pleasurable, and certainly more hopeful. The most frequently encountered example of this revival is the “historic” wall calendar. The days and dates for 1902 and 2014 correspond, for example, so there is a memorabilia market for newly printed copies of century-old calendars decorated with hunting scenes that must have quickened the pulse of Teddy Roosevelt.
Fifty years of shooting over bird dogs, many of them extraordinarily good bird dogs, has made me aware that the grace and style of the dog afield does not often match the fanciful image of those flawless setters and pointers from the golden ages of hunting art. But sometimes reality meets and even exceeds the beauty and wonder of art, and those are the days that come flashing back, memories as clear and clean and crisp as an October morning, when we glimpse one of the romantic paintings of gun dogs in action.
I want to put on vest and hat, take a double gun in hand, step into the scene, and go walking off toward that promising covert in the company of beautiful dogs and a boon hunting companion. Art as life, life as art.