Phillips Rig Feeding Yellowlegs Beverly, MA, c. 1890 13 in. long
“...still in the Autumn, more frequently if the water is low, the merry whistle of the Winter Yellow-leg is heard in the the frosty air.” -Dr. John C. Phillips, Wenham Lake Shooting Record And The Farm Bag, 1897-1925
This decoy’s rich history, animated form, unique execution, and excellent provenance place it among the most important shorebird decoys ever offered for sale.
Carved with confidence and originality, the maker effectively captured this species in a complex pose. The reaching body has raised wings that are complemented by two carved primaries on each side. A channel down the back furthers the body definition, resolving at the base of the elegant scalloped tail which also displays incised feather carving. The reaching head is turned 15 degrees to the side and its low bend suggests a “minnow-in-throat.”
The form of this decoy has virtually no comparables by any maker, and additionally no other examples of its type out of the Phillips rig have surfaced. The most closely related carvings are perhaps those of A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), who was also a contributor to the Phillips rig. Crowell’s “dust-jacket” plover, with their incised primaries, animated poses, and raised wings, possess the very specific traits also identifiable in this singular yellowlegs. Crowell’s first known plover rig does not display the animated form or wing carving displayed in this carving, or Crowell’s subsequent “dust-jacket” birds. Crowell very likely gunned over this decoy at Phillips’ Wenham Lake camp, and it is possible that it served as an inspiration for his later masterworks.
Dr. John Charles Phillips (1876-1938) Dr. John C. Phillips was the son of a prosperous shipping merchant and his great-grandfather was the first mayor of Boston. He grew up in Boston, summered on Wenham Lake in Beverly, and graduated from Harvard and then Harvard Medical School around the turn of the century. In addition to serving as a surgeon in World War I, Phillips made significant contributions to science, including the discovery of eleven previously unknown bird species.
A true Renaissance man, Phillips was a prolific author in addition to all his other talents. He published over 200 books and articles on a myriad of subjects. In the mid-1920s, Phillips published his four-volume opus, A Natural History of The Ducks, illustrated by the top artists of the day: Frank W. Benson (1862-1951), Allan Brooks (1869-1946), and Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927). The hunting world owes Phillips a debt of gratitude for his 1929 Shooting Stands of Eastern Massachusetts, illustrated by Aiden L. Ripley (1896-1969), which chronicles classic gunning stands that have now all disappeared. One of the featured stands was his own Wenham Lake camp. In addition to being an excellent location from which to shoot waterfowl, this two-hundred-and-fifty-acre lake once held crystal-clear water renowned for its purity. Beginning in the early 1840s, blocks of Wenham Lake ice, packed in sawdust, travelled by ship to New Orleans, Cuba, Jamaica, England, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and other ports all over the world. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) demanded Wenham Lake ice; author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) wrote about the startling experience of swallowing Wenham Lake ice for the first time in far-off Bombay. Although three-quarters of the cargo typically melted before arriving at its final destination, the venture was still profitable thanks to the high prices buyers were willing to pay for the remaining ice. To wit, The Kipling Journal states, “By 1845, no dinner party in London, England, of social consequence, was considered complete without ice shipped 3,000 miles from Wenham Lake.” This famous lake provided Phillips with an ideal setting to cultivate his love of the natural worl.
Beginning in his early teenage years, Phillips was keenly interested in hunting wildfowl. He shared this passion with a young carver from East Harwich, A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952). As a lad of twelve or thirteen armed with a twelve gauge, Crowell recalls shooting his first black duck in Eugene V. Connett’s, Duck Shooting Along the Atlantic Tidewater. He reports that shortly thereafter his father purchased a large tract of lakeside property from which he shot ninety-seven black ducks the following fall. These impressive statistics indicate that the maker quickly became a masterful guide. Phillips sought out Crowell and hired him to run his hunting camps on Wenham Lake and Oldham Pond.
The role that John C. Phillips played in promoting Crowell’s carving career cannot be overstated. By hiring him as a gunning stand manager, the doctor provided the young carver with a steady job that offered ample downtime to carve as well as a ready market for his wooden creations. In addition to buying some of Crowell’s earliest working decoys, Phillips commissioned a set of Crowell miniatures around 1902, according to a 1914 Boston Globe article on the carver. These turn-of-the-century acquisitions make Phillips one of the earliest known collectors of bird carvings. The decoys that Crowell carved for Phillips included a world-record-setting black duck (lot 14) and pintail. Phillips did not, however, hunt exclusively over Crowell decoys; the world-record-setting Phillips-Teiger running curlew and this feeding yellowlegs also emanated from the rig. The Phillips rig birds are are not only among Massachusetts’ finest, but they are also considered among the greatest decoys ever carved.
“...You should observe his eyeball protrude beyond his eye. He drops his pipe, he grabs a gun, and taking deadly aim He knocks that tender Duckling My goodness! what a shame. No matter if he's flying fast or diving with a vim Young Crowell's sure to stop him, There are no flies on him. So here's to Cape Cod Crowell, The man behind the gun, We’ll drink our glasses empty and hope he's on the run.” -John C. Phillips, Wenham Lake Shooting Record And The Farm Bag, 1897-1925
Original paint with even gunning wear, one inch added to bill tip, touch-up to rub on right wing.
Provenance: Dr. John C. Phillips Rig Collection of Phillips' guide, Massachusetts Private Collection, by descent from the above Private Collection Mark Smith Collection
Literature: Joe Engers, ed., "1987 Year in Review," Decoy Magazine, Lewes, DE, 1987, front cover, rigmate illustrated, p. 18, exact decoy illustrated. Joe Engers, ed., "1997 Year in Review," Decoy Magazine, Ocean City, MD, 1997, front cover, exact decoy and rigmate illustrated. John C. Phillips, " Wenham Lake Shooting Record And The Farm Bag, 1897-1925," 1926, p. 6.
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