Bishops Head Wigeon Pair The Ward Brothers Lemuel T. (1896-1984) and Stephen W. (1895-1976) Crisfield, MD, c. 1928 16 1/4 in. long
Maryland decoy historian C. John Sullivan recounts that the reputation of Lem and Steve Ward “spread throughout the Chesapeake region, and they produced decoys for gunners in the Upper Bay as well. A few of the gunning clubs ordered Ward decoys, and in some cases a particular Ward style became associated with a specific club.” The Bishops Head style is one such example. Known for their pronounced crowns, paddle tails, detailed body paint, high heads, and full cheeks, this wigeon pair showcase all the traits associated with the Bishops Head style. While this distinct style is most commonly found in geese, it is also seen in a few mallards and black ducks.
Of the numerous patterns designed by the Ward brothers, the ones associated with the Bishops Head Club models are among the most coveted. The Bishops Head moniker emanates from the rigs made for Colonel Albanus Phillips (1871-1949). In 1921 Phillips purchased an eight square mile property located just south of Cambridge, Maryland, for use as a gunning club.
The Bishops Head Club was a two-story lodge with its own man-made tidal pool. The lodge had a large great room with a fireplace, a locker room, and bedrooms on the second level. There was also a caretaker's house, live decoy pens, and kennels. The boat dock was also used by members of the Cambridge Yacht Club, which Phillips also founded. An avid hunter, this camp provided Phillips, his brother Levi, and W. Grayson Winterbottom, their business partner, with a place of respite from their booming food canning business. Phillips was widely known throughout the Eastern Shore and Presidents Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt were known to have been guests at his lodge. During its heyday, Bishops Head was considered one of the Eastern Shore's great hunting clubs.
The Ward Brothers’ Decoys authors Gard and McGrath write that “Steve Ward often stated that the widgeon was his favorite bird…this species allowed the Ward brothers to give full expression to their artistry in color and form.” A study of the few gunning Ward wigeon that remain shows that Steve’s preference for the baldpate carried into the exceptional and dynamic carvings he made of this species. These wigeon with expressive turned heads impart a strong interplay between the hen and drake rarely seen in decoy pairs. Lem expertly applied paint using a full suite of techniques to capture the likeness of species, while also appealing to his patrons.
Each decoy is identified and signed in paint on the underside with “MALE [and FEMALE] WIDGEON WARD’S DECOYS CRISFIELD, M.D.” The undersides also bear markings for the Kirson Collection and the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art. The pair were separated for years until the consignor reunited them in 2010. The drake alone was selected for the “One Hundred Greatest” book. Now with its mate, this pair represents the only two Ward Bishops Head model wigeon carvings known.
While Ward Brothers wigeon are among their premier species, few were made and virtually no other early pairs survive in such pristine condition. The form, paint, condition, rarity, age, provenance, and exhibition history of this pair place them among the very best Ward decoys in existence. Not simply among the finest Wards, these carvings embody two of the best of the species by any maker. Original paint with minimal wear, including a very small chip to the drake’s bill tip.
Provenance: Private Collection, Connecticut, acquired from the Wards, c. 1928 (drake) Donald Kirson Collection
Literature: Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, "Timeless Treasures: Ward Brothers Decoys," Salisbury, MD, 2007, p. 59, exact drake illustrated. Loy S. Harrell, Jr., "Decoys: North America’s One Hundred Greatest," Iola, WI, 2000, pp. 160-161, exact drake decoy illustrated. Ronald J. Gard and Brian J. McGrath, "The Ward Brothers' Decoys: A Collector's Guide," Plano, TX, 1989, pp. 89-90. C. John Sullivan, "Waterfowling on the Chesapeake, 1819-1936," Baltimore, MD, 2003. The Ward Museum, "Masters of Decoy and Wildfowl Carvings: The Kirson Collection," Salisbury, MD, 2011, p. 3 and back cover, exact pair illustrated.
Exhibited: Salisbury, Maryland, "Timeless Treasures: Ward Brothers Decoys," The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, August 31 - November 11, 2007, drake exhibited. Salisbury, Maryland, "Masters of Decoy and Wildfowl Carvings: The Kirson Collection," The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, July 2011 - February 2012, pair exhibited.
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