The Earnest-Purnell Humpback Pintail Drake Decoy, The Ward Brothers
The Earnest-Purnell Humpback Pintail Drake Decoy, The Ward Brothers
The Ward Brothers
Lemuel T. (1896-1984) and Stephen (1895-1976)
Crisfield, MD, 1925
17 1/4 in. long
The Ward brothers were among very few carvers who derived commercial success from both hunters and collectors during their lifetimes. In the 1920s, they quickly found local notoriety with carvings such as this pintail. By the 1930s, they were shipping birds to Chicago and California. “The famous decoy contest in 1948,” writes Quintina Colio on the heritage of decoys, “was held in the Grand Central Palace, New York City, sponsored by Schaefer Brewing Company and the winner was the Ward Brothers, from Crisfield, Maryland. Renowned judges included Wm J. Mackey, Jr., Lynn Bogue Hunt and Dr. Edgar Burke.” At the Mackey auctions in the 1970s, a related humpback drake was described as “one of the top birds in the Mackey Collection,” and sold accordingly.
“Stephen W. Ward (1895-1976) and his brother Lemuel Travis Ward (1896-1984) of Crisfield, Maryland would eventually go on to become the most prominent Chesapeake Bay carvers of the twentieth century and among the greatest and most influential bird carvers of all time. The brothers worked closely together throughout their lives…Lem, a natural lefty who was born with a deformed left hand, taught himself to paint with his good hand, while Steve exhibited strong carving skills early on, creating dynamic forms for Lem to paint. Surviving Ward decoys from the late 1910s and early 1920s have dramatically humped backs, extended tails, and angled head positions unlike anything that had preceded them. The brothers made decoys only for their own use until their father’s untimely death, when they began to sell their work to local hunters to help support their families.” -Robert Shaw “Bird Decoys of North America: Nature, History, and Art”
The Ward humpback pintail has been an icon of American bird decoys and folk art for decades with the few remaining examples in original paint seen in the nation’s top museums, collections, and publications.
Ward authorities Gard and McGrath note that “the pintail was Lem’s favorite bird and he shows this preference in the painting of his pintails.” This partiality was supported by their early experiences with the species. In Colio’s “American Decoys,” Southern historian and collector, and friend of the Wards, William H. Purnell Jr. recounted that in their early days “the Wards were avid duck hunters, gunning the Cedar Island Marsh in Somerset County, Maryland. Steve recalls that they would pole out to their duck blind, shoot all day then they would pole back… a journey of four miles. He said that when he and Lem would approach the sand bar the pintails and the baldpates would jump up and would resemble a cloud of smoke… they enjoyed some of the best shooting on the Chesapeake Bay.” With these experiences, it is not a surprise that many of the brothers’ best early carvings were of pintails and wigeon.
Discussing a closely related rigmate, authors Gard and McGrath write, “This decoy is the epitome of the Wards’ Hump Back design, with the head set back and almost touching the back of the bird. The body is rotund but elongated, with a magnificent accent of an exaggerated upward sweeping tail. This bird is an example of the Wards’ design capability in its folkiest period. The paint is original which is extremely unusual for a Ward Hump Back decoy. The presentation of the paint itself is a marvelous combination of stippling, scratch painting, and blending that gives this working bird a feathery appearance. The condition of the paint is excellent considering the age and use of the bird. As might be expected with an early hunting decoy, the tip of the tail is chipped....This decoy is extremely desirable.”
A related humpback pintail resides in the Museum of American Folk Art and has also been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That decoy was illustrated in Waingrow’s “American Wildfowl Decoys,” in which the author writes, “Today, collectors find virtually any carving by the Ward brothers desirable, but none more so than the glorious working decoy of a pintail drake pictured. It shows them at their very best.”
The underside bears Lem's signature and his later inked inscription "L. T. Ward - Bro. Crisfield, Md. 1930." Though inscribed 1930 on the bottom, this model is widely accepted as circa 1925. Branded "MK" designating the Kramer Collection and “P” for the William H. Purnell Jr. Collection.
This decoy displays all of the features that collectors of early Ward decoys and folk art look for, indeed it has Earnest-Purnell-Kramer provenance. This content resting decoy was made as some of the earliest Ward decoys without eyes. The body has a high humped back and upturned sprig tail. Original paint on a Ward decoy of this age is exceedingly rare. Lem’s original paint here shows a stylish design with scratched detail and an appealing surface. The provenance, form, condition, rarity, and species of this decoy place it as one of the best Ward decoys known to exist. This marks the first time in over forty years that this important decoy has been offered for sale.
Strong original paint with even gunning wear, minor old touch-up to some flaking, and partial restoration to tail.
Provenance: Adele Earnest Collection
William H. Purnell Jr. Collection, acquired from the above
Dr. Morton D. Kramer Collection, acquired from the above in 1978
Literature: Glenn Lawson, "The Story of Lem Ward," West Chester, PA, 1984, p. 30, exact decoy illustrated.
Ronald J. Gard and Brian J. McGrath, "The Ward Brothers' Decoys: A Collector's Guide," Plano, TX, 1989, pp. 57, 51, and back dust-jacket cover, related example illustrated.
Jeff Waingrow, "American Wildfowl Decoys," New York, NY, 1985, pp. 28-29, related drake illustrated.
Quintina Colio, "American Decoys," Ephrata, PA, 1972, pp. 2-3, related pintail and widgeon illustrated.
Richard A. Bourne Co., Inc., "Very Rare and Important American Bird Decoys from the Collection of the late William J. Mackey Jr. of Belford, New Jersey," Hyannis, MA, Sessions V and VI, July 1974, lot 583, related decoy illustrated.
Robert Shaw, "Bird Decoys of North America," New York, NY, 2010, p. 205 and back dust jacket, related wigeon illustrated.
Stacy C. Hollander, "American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum," New York, NY, 2001, p. 366, related example illustrated.
Loy S. Harrell Jr., "Decoys: North America’s One Hundred Greatest," Iola, WI, 2000, pp. 8-9, related pair illustrated.
Bob Ridges, "Decoy Ducks," New York, NY, 1988, p. 157, exact decoy illustrated.
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