2014-01-15 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Sensational Babylon Westminster News: On Feb. 12, a 19th century oil painting by J. M. Tracy depicting two of the most celebrated Pointers ever – Sensation and Bang Bang will be a highlight of the annual Dogs In Show & Field Auction at Bonhams Madison Avenue galleries. Both Pointers stayed at the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) property in Babylon Village on the west side of Southards Pond. In fact, Sensation, immortalized as the WKC logo, was buried there under the flagpole in 1887. The painting is expected to sell for $100,000 to $150,000.

At least two Tracy paintings were in Babylon during Westminster’s tenure from 1880 to 1904. This painting titled “Haunt of the woodcock: Sensation and Bang Bang” by John Martin Tracy (1843-1893) shows the famous Pointer pair during a hunt in a woods. It has local significance to Babylonians. Recently I found an old journal article that strongly suggests this canvas hung in the Babylon Westminster clubhouse.

“Haunt of the woodcock: Sensation and Bang Bang” by J.M. Tracy “Haunt of the woodcock: Sensation and Bang Bang” by J.M. Tracy Below is vivid praise from the March 13, 1886 “The American Field” as author Jacob Pentz describes the furnishings in the WKC clubhouse in Babylon after a visit. James Mortimer, WKC show superintendent and kennel manager who lived in the house that now stands at 358 Livingston, picked Pentz up at Babylon station in a carriage:

“...Oil paintings, etchings and old engravings ornament the walls. Of these the most interesting are the paintings by the artist Tracy. By far the best of these is the one of those celebrated canine cracks, Sensation and Bang Bang. They are represented as being upon a woodcock point. The dogs are painted in the artist’s most happy manner, while the landscape is the best by far of any of the artist’s pictures that I have seen. His love of the dog is such, that I fancy he sometimes sacrifices the accessories of his work to the finish of the main idea. As I recall the painting Bang Bang is in the foreground up-headed and erect; Sensation standing to the left, is in more lengthy position with neck and body extended to its greatest length. The scene is a heavily wooded dell in early Autumn, when the leaves are strongly tinted and the very air shimmers with ruddy color. In the middle ground a pool of water receives the glowing rays of light, but returns them in subdued tone as befits the shade in which it lies. A heavy growth of lowlying bushes and vines, with here and there a stone showing through, makes the foreground. The whole is treated in a more masterly manner, and with greater regard to detail and finish, than anything I have yet seen from the artist’s brush.”

1889 WKC certificate showing the same Tracy artwork 1889 WKC certificate showing the same Tracy artwork Tracy belonged to WKC from 1885 until his death, and contributed artwork to his club. I own an 1889 WKC award of commendation certificate signed by Mortimer decorated with the Tracy heads of Sensation and Bang Bang taken from “Haunt of the woodcock.”

Prized Pointers: In 1876 George DeForest Grant, member of the newly formed WKC sporting club, went to England looking for the perfect Pointer as a stud dog. He found “Don,” a two-year-old 70-pound lemon and white dog with an impressive show record and said to have “the best head of any Pointer in America, and probably in England.” Once stateside, “Don” was re-christened “Sensation.” He did well in the ring and the field, but the Pointer’s real dual role was to breed more champions and to represent WKC which he did so well. Sensation’s image has remained ubiquitous at the WKC Dog Show for 138 years. Meanwhile, Grant was a participant in the pigeon shoots held on WKC Babylon grounds.

In 1883 Grant went back abroad and purchased Bang Bang, also two years old, already with a fine record yet smaller in stature than Sensation because Pointers were shown in two sizes then. Bang Bang became Sensation’s successor and additional foundation for Pointers in America. Early WKC catalogues contain Mortimer’s ads from WKC Babylon offering both dogs at stud for $50. Like all celebrities these dogs were not without their critics. The most scathing was James Watson (quill name- “Porcupine”) a dog journalist who in 1885 disputed Sensation’s eligibility in a certain show, and later penned that Bang Bang’s tail was “faked,” saying a bald spot had been covered, suggesting he had mange. Such jealousy!

The Artist: J. M. Tracy, a descendant of Mayflower passengers, was renowned in his lifetime as a painter of dogs, horses and sporting scenes, but most of his work was so revered that it stayed within the families that had commissioned it. His father was an abolitionist killed in an anti-slavery uprising. Tracy enlisted in the Union army in 1861. He became an artist after the Civil War, studying in France and San Francisco. He married the sister of a wellknown French sculptor. After much travel he purchased an old farmhouse in Greenwich, CT and filled it with Revolutionary War relics. He became immensely popular painting dog sporting scenes and portraits. He did a huge painting of Mr. and Mrs. August Belmont Jr. (more Babylonians) strolling in a field with their Pointers and Collie. Tracy died in 1893 at the age of 49 which is another reason why his paintings are rare.

Tracing the Tracy: Last September, Nick Waters, a canine art historian and writer living in England, reached out to my friend Karen Blasche in Oregon (historian of the American Pointer Club) about Sensation and Bang Bang because he was writing about the upcoming auction. It seems that the “Haunt of the woodcock” had belonged to someone in England. Since the search for Sensation’s grave has been my obsession for years, Karen and I shared our research and fact-checked Nick’s drafts.

How did the painting get overseas? According to Mr. Stifel’s book: The Dog Show: 125 Years of Westminster, WKC left Babylon in 1904 when NYS outlawed pigeon shoots and opened a clubhouse in Tenafly, NJ. Soon after NJ passed similar legislation so the WKC closed clubhouses forever. In Dec. 1904 the WKC auctioned off 70 pieces of art to members. Was this Tracy painting one of the 70?

Without divulging the name on the back of the painting, we possibly traced its lineage to a contemporary of the WKC charter members, an officer who taught at West Point, but we could find no direct links to the WKC or Britain.

We can all dream. I truly wish there were an anonymous donor or room in the Babylon Town Historical Museum budget so the “Haunt of the woodcock” could find its way back home.

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