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A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952)
East Harwich, MA, c. 1912
12 in. tall
Often the fingerprints and influences people leave behind do not come to light for generations, if ever. This can be especially true for private individuals who seek neither recognition nor notoriety. Harry Vinton Long (1857-1949) lived an extraordinary life dedicated to his passions, surrounded by close friends and family. He cultivated a myriad of interests including the opera, architecture, horticulture, ornithology, hunting, fly fishing, sailing, conservation, and collecting Americana. In the spring of 1909, he and his wife, Susan Higginson Bowditch (1857-1935), purchased a property off the coast of Massachusetts that totaled just less than three acres. Jutting out into Cape Cod Bay, Long’s White Head estate was ideally located for birdwatching, and it afforded terrific shorebird and duck shooting just steps from the house. Long was an extensive recordkeeper and his bird sightings were published in the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s bulletin. In 1919 he writes: “My island seems to be in the direct line of flight of almost all the birds; all the species of small birds seem to take a look in, coming in the spring and going in the fall; all kinds of flycatchers, shore-birds, geese, brant and coot fly directly over the house.” Shorebirds sighted in the first few years included whimbrel, pectoral sandpiper, winter and summer yellowlegs, robin snipe, stilts, ruddy turnstones, black-bellied plover, and golden plover.
Long was an active member of the New England Historical and Genealogical Society and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). Since one of his core missions in life was the preservation of Americana, his identification of Elmer Crowell as a national treasure comes as little surprise. In a 1921 letter, Long states his vision “...to preserve and illustrate the life of New Englanders from the earliest period and find expression in those myriad objects of personal and domestic necessity or luxury and in the thousand and one implements of daily use.” An early collector of furniture, paintings, decoys, Audubon prints, Benson etchings, and books, Long sought out the finest examples in every genre and derived pleasure from living with these furnishings and decorative objects. Consequently, the carvings that Crowell carved for Long are exceptional. The Long Canada goose trinity, preening pintail, swimming black duck, tucked-head merganser, open-bill calling yellowlegs decoy with dropped wings, and this lot are all commissioned pieces and pinnacle works.
Carved with a rare open wooden bill and dropped wings, the condition of this early yellowlegs is remarkable. The slightly upswept tail and dropped primaries mirror the horizontal V-shape of the bill, providing the boldly carved shorebird with sculptural balance. The maker used a subtle incision to raise the top edge of the wings over the bird’s flank; the tail feathers are also incised. A strong S-curve defines the drawn-back posture of the calling head. Crowell applied his finest wet-on-wet paint with fine detail to represent the species’ plumage, including special treatment to the auriculars under the eyes. With particularly long legs and bill, this example represents the greater (winter) yellowlegs. The carved clamshell base is among the maker’s largest and finest, and its underside bears an early and crisp oval brand.
Crowell made the aforementioned calling yellowlegs decoy for Long in 1910 and subsequently used the pattern of this important working bird as the template for this lot. Together, these two Long Collection birds mark the nexus of Crowell’s transition from the marsh to the mantle, as it occurred at White Head. This exceptional and rare decorative has remained in the Long family since it was acquired from the artist over a century ago; it is now being offered for sale at auction for the first time. It stands as one of the finest decorative shorebird carvings ever created.
Original paint with minimal wear from handling, including typical minor flaking to leg putty.
Provenance: Harry V. Long Collection, acquired directly from the artist
Private Collection by descent in the family
Literature: Copley Fine Art Auctions, LLC, The Harry V. Long Collection of A. Elmer Crowell Decoys, The Sporting Sale, Boston, MA, 2009, lot 64, pp. 24, 73 and dust jacket cover, Long calling decoy illustrated.
Stephen B. O’Brien Jr. and Chelsie W. Olney, Elmer Crowell: Father of American Bird Carving, Hingham, MA, 2019, p. 124, Long calling decoy illustrated.
Bulletin of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, vol. II, no. 9, January 1919.
The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Proceedings of the New England Historic Genealogical Society at the Annual Meeting, 3 February 1915. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1915.
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