The Art of Sport
When I was twelve, my father gave me a twenty-gauge, single-shot shotgun from Sears for my late October birthday. We tried it out in the fields surrounding his family’s old home place in a wide spot called Richburg, South Carolina. Daddy was a shot and did well, but when that first covey exploded, it scared the hell out of me. It is amazing how much racket quail create just by taking wing. We then followed old Pat, an English setter named for one of Daddy’s sisters, as she pointed the birds and, with Daddy’s encouragement, eased forward to flush them.
This is the way generations of Southern men have schooled their sons in the pursuit of the finest game bird in North America, and I am proud to have been raised in that tradition. Sometime later, we went to a field trial on the Anderson County side of the Saluda River so my father could watch the dogs work, and I would have exposure enough to become a true believer. Sad to say, I was too young, and the lessons didn’t stick. It would be years later—when my own son McLean was grown—that I would take up the sport with passion. During all four years as a college student, McLean worked for our friend—first his and now mine—Jake Rasor at Harris Springs Sportsman’s Resort in Cross Hill, South Carolina. McLean learned the birds and the dogs and the land. As a result, my son has gone on to teach me things my father could not.
Simply put, art is the recording of life. And so when my friend and fellow dealer Gerry Wunderlich first offered me the painting A Field Trial, A Shot, I knew what it was all about. My father had taken me into the field to teach me not only specific skills, but, more importantly, about life. He well understood that especially in Southern climes, the social aspects of the hunt were so much a part of it all. What he could not have known was that a Saturday’s adventure with his son to this thing called a field trial would educate the boy in the ways of such things for an entirely different purpose—at least enough to bluff my way through the conversation with Billy Morris when he purchased the painting. And maybe even with Gerry when I convinced him that I was the right man to handle the picture because of my “vast” experience in such matters. John Martin Tracy was the artist and that painting was my introduction to him. I learned my lessons with it, lessons which in turn allowed me to understand and claim other works by sporting artists as they came into my sights.
This is the story of Southern, in pictures.
Over the Boufay
Paintings have to have a place to hang. The fact that one has simply “run out” of wall space is a feeble excuse, but I understand. Not everyone has art bins built into their basements, though I have known many who do. The South has had a long fascination with household inventories—those precisely documented indexes of domestic goods, both humble and high, so treasured today by house museums and whole-town restorations like Colonial Williamsburg and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. On the rarest of occasions, we find ourselves not matching chests and cupboards by number, be they walnut or mahogany, but paintings by general content description. The late Southern historian Winston Broadfoot often provided those inventories for us.
In 2006, we sent our then gallery director Daria Atwell to meet a gentleman in Virginia who, over a series of phone calls, had described what I imagined to be another version of the Virginia Museum's A Virginny Breakdown by John Adams Elder (the painting he sold us, it would turn out, was in fact the earlier version). He and I had worked out the price in advance, but he had not mentioned the handful of other paintings he owned, several by the same John Adams Elder, nor the written 1927 inventory in which these canvases were itemized by the executor tasked with cataloguing the estate.
Painting titles are often apocryphal, and, like other dealers and historians, I have made up more than my share. The only (and widely agreed upon) rule for this practice is that the assigned title must describe the story the picture tells. In the case of the Elder canvas, the census taker simply called it The Family, a fair enough exercise in nomenclature. A Virginny Breakdown is obviously a more expressive title, connecting a Southern artistic tradition—the depiction of African American children dancing and making music—with the proffered vignette. Certainly, The Family suggests home and hearth, a sentimental and palatable theme. However, I have found, over the last thirty-odd years, that active scenes and active titles generate much more enthusiasm from clients.
Not only did this Virginia gentleman have a handful of other canvases that we enthusiastically purchased, he also had in his possession—and now in ours—the original receipt for his ancestor’s purchase of the same. This receipt included the first sale—from Elder to forebear—of the artist’s The Battle of the Crater, owned by the Commonwealth Club in Richmond, Virginia. Such clubs are likely repositories for paintings of local interest, often acquired or given in honor of some distinguished member. The Detroit Athletic Club has a stellar collection built in just this fashion. I saw Elder's signal canvas for the first time when Maria Tabb, Ginna Christian, and Wiley Wheat asked me to join them for dinner at the Commonwealth Club in the late 1970s. They were all about the prints by Mark Catesby that I was selling then, and I was all about the wonders of Virginia high society. To a number, each of the ladies placed an order for “to-mah-toes,” extra syllables courtesy of their Old Dominion upbringing. When the waiter turned to me for my preference, I chose not to “Anglicize” as Alan King had suggested and request “to-may-toes.” I selected the far safer asparagus instead.
In late summer of 2009—a season noted in the Lowcountry for its lack of hurricane activity—John Cuthbert called to share his discovery and scholarly exploration of a painting of Virginia's Natural Bridge by Jacob Caleb Ward. John is one of those exceptional art historians who can see through the centuries and sift and sort and segregate with a clarity not afforded the rest of us. Nancy Rivard Shaw has filled this role for our gallery over the years—brilliant in her research and writing, adding value and heft to the art that has come through our doors. Other scholars have shared their talents as well; Roberta Sokolitz, Valerie Leeds, Alex Moore, and Estill Curtis Pennington deserve special mention.
While making his rounds through the antique shops that dot the New Hampshire countryside around his summer home, John came across a painting inauspiciously tagged as an "English Landscape." An expert in American art, John did not need a fact checker to understand that the Natural Bridge, so clearly depicted, was in Virginia, not Britannia. His purchase and subsequent study of the painting eventually resulted in the identification of the painter—an attribution made certain by so many tell-tale signs, though the panel bore no name. The physical evidence that was revealed, however, was a penciled verso inscription disclosing the location in which the painting had hung. In other words, the painting sported its own, self-contained inventory: “Over Boufay.” The “boo-fay” is exactly what my grandmother, Sweetheart, would have named what we call a sideboard today. Just as the unknown person who named The Family had recorded a moment in time, someone—perhaps the same individual or maybe the painting’s original owner—had left us a treasure map, elucidating not the scene or its subject, but declaring its position of household prominence: “Over Boufay.” Paintings have to have a place hang.
This is the story of Southern, in pictures.
We begin as children, studying life and gauging our place in the scheme of things. Early on, we realize that someone out there must be keeping score. The gold-embossed certificates we received as grammar school achievers (for whatever it was we did) were one way to keep track—if not for us, then for our parents. For better or worse, report cards meant little to me, though I could read the letters and anticipate how my parents might react—most often in frustration, at times with filial pride. The academics of high school were close to meaningless for me, and it wasn’t until my college days at Presbyterian College that I found a social and scholastic context in which to grow. Somewhere in the midst of that fertile environment, I came to understand the secret that my very Southern-ness was at the heart of where I had come from and a guide for the way ahead. Reading Faulkner and then James Dickey, I understood.
Were I not an art dealer, what would I do? Maybe I would farm, but that would rob me of my favorite avocation. I buy and sell pictures for profit; others collect pictures as I farm. My college studies allowed exposure to English and history, science and religion, music, some athletics, and even an accounting course under some fellow who allowed me a C without any understanding on my part of the concept of depreciation. I have learned since. Through and despite it all (and with almost no understanding of how to negotiate the social currents), I believe I figured out who the future leaders among my classmates were and have relied on those relationships ever since.
I did not leave those undergraduate years equipped to buy and sell paintings because I understood art, but because that experience had awakened in me an interest in the larger world before me and prepared me to embrace what that world—no, universe—offered. There are others who have come to dealing in such things by a similar road. Not one among us has a piece of parchment that says “Art Dealer.”
And who, pray tell, has a certificate that says “Southerner?” The real ones do not have to, but wear the cloak. Tarleton Blackwell’s Hog Series is so outrageous—so born in the sandhills Southern—that, as Manhattan’s Howard Godel might say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” I loved these pictures from the first glimpse of a hairy pig’s snout on canvas, be they the anthropomorphic forms on a Harley or pigs counting chickens. I count it an honor that Tarleton would include me in this series; I am Bush Hog. My roots long for the nineteenth century, but Tarleton is a creative genius of this time. I am blessed to count him a friend. Tarleton is quiet and measured in his person and prose, in contrast to the artist Bill Dunlap, who claims he is a redneck just passing through.
I met Tarleton on a phone call—me to him—extended just to tell him how much I liked his work. I met Bill in a bar in Augusta after he spoke at a function at the Morris Museum of Art in—I don’t know—maybe 2004. Not that I have had occasion to doubt my Southern bona fides, but an evening with Bill made me think I’d earned a few more of those certificates. We each knew of the other, but had never before shared a tale or a glass, though we have shared many since. Bill is equal to Mississippi’s best storytellers and while his art is of Mississippi as well, it transcends state lines. He is a modern master of the South.
Bill and Tarleton are the South. I wish I could have done something more to have advanced each of their already stellar careers. My limited success with living painters may have more to do with my perception of myself as a dealer in the dead ones, rather than as a promoter of living personalities. Surely my clients see me that way.
The sale of important paintings to premier museums and impressive private collections has given our gallery’s dossier legitimacy and even a certain patina. Obviously, it all comes back to the quality of the inventory, but it is the veneer of time—and the accumulation of those so-called certificates—that makes the next offer easier. From the beginning, we have worked diligently to thoroughly document the paintings we handle. Research and writing by independent scholars has carried its own cost, expenses that can’t always be justified by the bottom line. But I believe that the privilege of owning these treasures, however temporarily, brings with it certain responsibilities. Scholarship—much like conservation—is stewardship. Paintings, like people, can go a little bit farther with the right credentials.
This is the story of Southern, in pictures.
In art, as in economics, there is a trickle-down effect. Joseph Rusling Meeker, Elliott Daingerfield, and William Aiken Walker are regional painters who play on the national stage and, accordingly, their works command a loyal following and commensurate price. But there are so many others who transcribed quintessential Southern scenes—whether the swamps of an unspoiled
Regionalism’s roots can be traced, in no small measure, to a proud and youthful
Consider the example of Edward Beyer, who encountered the South after leaving his native
As word (via image) of the regional wonders of the South spread—through travel accounts and lithographic copies of the paintings themselves—artists fed tourism, however inadvertently. The phenomenon repeated itself a century later when artists in
This is the story of Southern, in pictures.