The museum gallery on opening night of the exhibition. Photo courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Chris Murphy, guest curator of the exhibition. Penny Uhlendorf photo. Courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
“I went to go look at a few decoys that someone called me about recently,” Chris Murphy said. The person was interested in knowing their value. “Well, I saw my father’s book on the shelf with them, and had to tell them, ‘The most valuable thing on the shelf is the book.’” Martha’s Vineyard Decoys by Stanley Murphy, published in Boston by David R. Godine (1978), is the reference usually cited in auction catalogs that mention Martha’s Vineyard decoy makers. Printed in a small edition long out of print, the book is expensive on the secondary market. A check of one Web site (www.bookfinder.com) on November 2, the day The Art of the Hunt opened, showed 13 copies available, priced from $100 to $1100. Chris Murphy said he sees them on eBay going for $300 to $500. This is a public library copy. Schinto photo.
A circa 1930 redhead by H. Keyes Chadwick. Photo courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
This black duck by Benjamin Warren Pease sold at Guyette & Schmidt on April 28, 2011, for $22,425. “At the top end of smart, and extremely wary, black ducks need a decoy that convinces,” said Chris Murphy. Photo courtesy Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter.
The Dunes at Quenames, 1981, oil on canvas by Stan Murphy. Lent by the Granary Gallery (Chris and Sheila Morse). Photo courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Out hunting on the Vineyard in 1969, Stan Murphy (second from left) with islander friends: Tom Mills, John Mayhew, and Sherman Hoar. Photo courtesy Shirley Mayhew.
An unidentified group of Martha’s Vineyard gunning club members. Islanders acted as caretakers for clubs on the great ponds of the Vineyard from the late 19th century onward. These clubs were usually established by sportsmen from off-island. One logbook entry for the Tisbury Pond Club records this grace said before a meal: “Oh Lord, from errors ways defend us lest we mistake thy will for luck. Give us, at dawn, a flight stupendous. Don’t send us coot, but geese and duck.” Photo courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
by Jeanne Schinto
A rig of decoys has a sole purpose. It is “to convince a living duck that they too are alive.” So wrote Stanley Murphy, author of the definitive Martha’s Vineyard Decoys. Murphy (1922-2003), who moved with his young family to the Vineyard in the late 1940’s, imagined he could hear “the rather dusty laughter of the long-gone gunners, amused at the idea of having their decoy ducks described as Art.” Making a metaphorical killing as an artist never crossed any old-time decoy-maker’s mind.
Murphy was a painter known for his oil portraits of islanders and island landscapes. He hunted with decoys but neither carved nor painted his own. It was enough that he collected them and was the island-based decoy-makers’ chronicler. Now Stan’s older son, Chris Murphy, has taken up the mantle, cataloging the small collection at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown and guest curating an exhibit of them.
The Art of the Hunt, which opened on November 2, 2012, acknowledges that the best decoys are considered American folk art in today’s antiques market and command commensurate headline-making prices. The primary focus of this show is not the aesthetics of a few choice birds, however. It is the waterfowl hunting tradition of the island and the practice of hand-making decoys that it fostered.
The exhibit evolved over a two-year period, said Chris Murphy, a retired waterman who fished, oystered, and clammed for his living and has done his share of decoy carving. Anna Carringer, assistant curator at the museum, was his collaborator. Nobody else had spent much time with the museum’s decoy collection in recent years. The last person who had worked with it extensively was Murphy’s father. A student of history and of the Vineyard, Stan had been a long-time member of the museum and served on its board of directors.
The project has had its challenges, particularly in the area of documentation. As the senior Murphy learned while writing his book, “the older hunters had very little interest in the matter of who made what decoy,” nor did many of the people who donated carvings to the museum. As a result, Chris told us in a phone conversation a few days before the show opened, “This is as much a fishing expedition as anything else. There’s so much we don’t know, and I’m hoping people will walk in the door and say, ‘Oh, this one over here was made by my grandfather, and I’ve got two more like it at home with his name on it.’ That’s the way you learn something. And it really will make a difference, because in another generation or two, this will all be academic. There will be no one who remembers anything.”
Besides about three dozen decoy examples dating from the 1870’s through the 1950’s, the exhibition includes paper patterns, photographs, prints, paintings, even a couple of shotguns. There are also snippets of text from the museum’s collection of oral histories with islanders. Recorded over a period of years by the museum’s oral-history curator, Linsey Lee, they recall the decoy makers of the past, their various, idiosyncratic methods, and the past glories of the Vineyard’s natural habitats before development took so many of its wild acres away.
“The oral histories are a species of collection all by themselves,” said Chris, who followed leads from clues he learned from them. In fact, on the morning of our conversation, he was listening to an oral history that mentioned a decoy he thought would make another good example for the show, and he immediately went down the street to borrow it.
The maker of that decoy was Herbert Hancock (1929-2001) of Chilmark. A Vineyard personality, he was town selectman for 37 years, but the name won’t mean anything to high-end decoy collectors. Unless, that is, they recall that in St. Charles, Illinois, on April 28, 2011, a black duck originally from Hancock’s collection sold at a Guyette & Schmidt auction for $22,425. It had been sold by Guyette & Schmidt once before, in 2001, for $17,000.
The black duck was made by Benjamin Warren Pease (1866-1938) of Oak Bluffs, then Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. According to Stan Murphy’s book, Pease was a builder, farmer, offshore fisherman, seiner of herring, fish buyer, and, like Hancock, also served as a town selectman.
The Pease price set an auction record for the maker, but it will probably be a while before another great Pease comes up. Made for himself, his decoys are rare. Only one Vineyard maker was a professional whose identified decoys appear with any regularity on the market today. He was H. Keyes Chadwick (1865-1958) of Oak Bluffs. (Keyes rhymes with “skies,” not “skis.”) A carpenter by trade, Chadwick made his first decoys for his own use, to put food on his table, and only started carving decoys for sale to others when an accident temporarily disabled him.
Our country’s undisputed master decoy maker—A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) of East Harwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod—was impressed with Chadwick’s work and, as reported in Stan Murphy’s book, occasionally bought unpainted birds from him to paint in his own inimitable way and sell to his customers.
“It should be known that Crowell had the highest regard for his Vineyard peer,” Stan wrote, although that regard was qualified. “[Crowell] once said to Chadwick, with witnesses present: ‘Chad, you are a better carver than I am,’ and then added: ‘but you can’t paint worth a damn!”
The geography of the Vineyard has much to do with why it became a favored duck-hunting spot. The triangular island lies directly in the Atlantic Flyway, a major migratory route that starts in northeastern Canada and extends south to the Caribbean and South America. Many of those birds fed and rested in the Vineyard’s numerous ponds. In the past, there were so many birds that they darkened the sky. Not so today, as market gunners have wiped out entire species there and elsewhere, selling the birds’ meat as well as their feathers for everything from bedding to hats.
When the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 limited the number that could be killed and season in which ducks and geese could be hunted, and outlawed the sale of any migratory birds at all, demand for working wooden decoys, both handmade and factory-made, fell. To continue making a living, many professional carvers began to sell decorative birds—that is, ones never meant to sit in a pond and be shot over. They also began to cater more often to men who hunted for sport.
Chadwick was one of those who made decoys for affluent sportsmen. Some decoy-makers also worked as hunting guides for their wealthy clientele, whose gunning camps, pictured in photos included in the exhibition, gave employment to many islanders from the turn of the last century through the 1940’s. While income disparities can create resentments, this was a mutually beneficial relationship.
“Keyes Chadwick wouldn’t have existed if he hadn’t had customers to buy what he made,” said Chris. “And by buying what he made, they encouraged him to make more and created a market. Every artist needs patrons,” added this son of a painter. “You could make some very nice item, and if nobody buys it, your wife will say, ‘You know, we’ve got enough of those.’”
The Art of the Hunt will be on exhibit through March 23. For more information, call (508) 627-4441 or see the Web site (www.mvmuseum.org).
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest