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The Wheeler Gull, Charles E. "Shang" Wheeler (1872-1949)

The Wheeler Gull, Charles E. "Shang" Wheeler (1872-1949)

Item Description:

Charles E. "Shang" Wheeler (1872-1949)
Stratford, CT, c. 1930
21 in. long 13 1/2 in. high

Charles Edward Wheeler is recognized as the most famous bird carver from Connecticut. While his predecessors, Albert Laing (1811-1886) and Benjamin Holmes (1843-1912), made many gunning decoys of exceptional quality, it was Wheeler who took the art form to the next level, producing everything from sandhill cranes to seagulls to salmon. Shang, as everyone called him, was an enigmatic figure: oysterman, politician, boxer, cartoonist, public speaker, conservationist, and world-renowned decoy carver.

Author Dixon Merkt comments on Wheeler’s life: "Wheeler’s concern with the conservation of nature eventually led him into politics. Over the years he had come to know and admire Teddy Roosevelt, and as a politician he adopted Roosevelt’s brand of progressive Republicanism. Himself a skilled ornithologist, former cowboy, and avid sportsman, Roosevelt had made conservation one cornerstone of his political platform. Wheeler followed in his footsteps. During several terms in the Connecticut General Assembly he led the campaign to pass anti-pollution and wildlife conservation legislation.

"Unlike T.R., Wheeler had no driving ambitions. He went into politics because he wanted to clean up Connecticut’s harbors and river. He did much of the hard work and then let other men win the laurels. His ties to Roosevelt and later to Herbert Hoover might have led him to high government office, if that had been his goal. But Wheeler was satisfied with the life he had built for himself around Stratford. He had many good friends; his work kept him outdoors; and each year he had time for hunting and fishing trips."

In 1923, Wheeler arrived on the competition carving scene with a bang. Public concern over the popular and devastating practice of dusking (hunting after dark) had started to take shape. Led by conservationists, including early historian, author, and collector Joel Barber, along with Paul Bigelow and John Boyle, the group started the Anti-Duskers Society. The Anti-Duskers sponsored one of the earliest decoy shows in North America on August 23rd at the public library in Bellport, Long Island. A carving competition held at the event was aimed at hunters in attendance to further advance the concept of shooting over decoys. The inaugural event attracted amateur and professional carvers from near and far; however, it was Wheeler who took home top amateur honors with his dynamic turned-head mallard drake. Joel Barber gave the winning decoy the highest praise possible, lauding that it represented “the highest development yet reached in the American art of decoy carving.” As stated by Merkt and Lytle, “Wheeler carted off first prize at Bellport because he had introduced a new style to decoy painting.”

Shang has been referred to as a “gentleman carver” and was an amateur in the truest sense of the word. To illustrate this, he reportedly turned down a commission from Walter P. Chrysler that would have been worth over $200,000 today “because he carved for pleasure, never for money,” according to Merkt. He preferred to make carvings for his rig, competition, and as gifts. An inscription on the underside of this rare gull states it was a wedding gift to his hunting companion Horace B. Merwin, who was a fellow carver and a bank president.

Wheeler did not make many standing decoratives and this is the only gull to come to light. This grand carving features raised and split wing tips, a turned head, and excellent head detail with Wheeler's signature smile. The bird was finished with the maker’s confident stylized paint which has a well-preserved surface. This gull, along with a related standing sandhill crane that resides in the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Colonial Williamsburg, remain the pinnacle of Wheeler’s decorative bird works.
Excellent original paint with minor wear, and cracks in legs.

Provenance: Horace Merwin Collection, received as a wedding gift by the maker

Herb Wetanson Collection

Literature: Dixon MacD. Merkt, "Shang: A Biography of Charles E. Wheeler," Spanish Fork, UT, 1984, p. 20, exact carving illustrated.

Henry C. Chitwood, "Connecticut Decoys," West Chester, PA, 1987, p. 71, exact carving illustrated.

Condition:

Please email condition report requests to colin@copleyart.com. Any condition statement given is a courtesy to customers, Copley will not be held responsible for any errors or omissions. The absence of a condition statement does not imply that the lot is in perfect condition.

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$ 23000.00 ( Sold Price )
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