Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Slo-Balls, Rollers, And Breeding Better Setters

 By Randy Lawrence

They are relics from another time, another kind of dog, other ways of thinking, training, and hunting, four artifacts streaked white from the swallow nests generations of birds have built from the low ceiling.   

For  more than thirty years, they have hung, unused, on the top board outside the horse stalls, mute testimony to the long journey this old farm has witnessed.

Back in the 1970's, this farm was consecrated to training and hunting dogs from horseback.  There were wild quail here then, as well as birds raised in seclusion, live trapped, and released in a designated "dog training" area.  This canteen watered the first truly great dog to ever hunt here, a dog from Sam Light's breeding named Willie.  When we hunted away from the creek that snaked through the Flagdale Road bottom, Willie would come in, put his front paws high along the fenders of my friend Bob Thompson's saddle, and drink enough to hit that next big lick along a long field edge.

The heavy hunks of iron, the bell shaped one a converted canoe anchor, rode in Bob's saddlebags.  When a dog went on point, Bob dismounted, pulled the weight out of his saddle bag and clipped one rein to that metal loop.  The shooting ponies Bob rode were conditioned to "ground tie," but the anchor was a reminder should a horse take a notion to meander off while his rider was walking up quail the dog had pinned.

The big bracelets of hard wooden balls are "action devices” rollers meant to irritate a horse's pasterns so that he picks his front feet up higher.  The slightly exaggerated leg lift, coupled with driving the horse into the long-shanked bit, can enhance the desired four-beat gait that walking horse aficionados covet.  Rollers are frowned on everywhere, outlawed in some places, consigned to a dark era before more thoughtful breeders focused on bloodstock whose smooth-riding gait comes naturally.

The fourth "museum piece" hanging on that weathered board is a lead snap tied to 8" of nylon cord, each threaded through a heavy rubber ball.  Marketed back in the day as "Slo Balls," this other sort of "action device" were fastened to the D-ring of a dog's collar so that the balls dangled between the animal's front feet.  As the dog ran, the balls rapped and bounced and battered the forelegs, ostensibly to distract and intimidate a dog for whom the far horizons were simply too much temptation.

I suppose they were left over from the "pro broke," horseback field trial dogs that hunted here when Bob first owned the farm, before he began to breed and train his own, before he selected for dogs that would take a fencerow to the end, but would check back and work in partnership with the handler.

I never saw the "Slo Balls" on a dog, thank God, just as I never saw those heinous rollers tied above the hooves of one of our shooting ponies.  But those tools of a different trade still hang in my barn, grim reminders of a time when my friend Bob and his peers thought we should force animals to our will and tastes.

Instead of discriminating breeding practices to shape a better pointer or setter, one genetically shaped as a companion working dog for whom The Right Stuff came naturally, hard, heedless men and women from another time, another sensibility, jerked, tripped, shocked, pinch collared whipped, and bullied dogs and horses into some semblance of what they were never bred to be in the first place.  More than one of the vintage training books from Bob's library shelves offer detailed instructions of how to "warm up" a disobedient dog with a "well-placed load of chilled #9's."

The ugly cruelty of "breaking dogs" never took root on this farm.  As the years and the dogs and the quail changed the soul of how things were done here, this place became a haven of "frictionless learning."  We devoted more time and thought to putting dogs and horse partners in positions to succeed, a philosophy built around the mantra of Delmar Smith, one of Bob's very few heroes in gun dog training:  point of contact, association, repetition... and marking time on the dog's schedule, not our own.  The inevitable gaffes by man and beast were turned into chances to learn, never excuses for losing composure and meting out punishment.

My friend Bob died three years before any Firelights came to live on his farm that I now call home.  But Lynn Dee's English setters, bred for discerning people who want to get with, and hunt through, their canine companions are, out of the box, everything Bob Thompson came to admire:  beautiful dogs that could step straight from the Rosseau or Frost or Wyeth prints he hung on his farmhouse walls; dogs that can fly in open country, then motor down to meticulously scour the thick 'n' thorny;  bird dogs that point with intensity and classic style, retrieve naturally, handle deftly...and share hearth and home between hunts with an ease and devotion that can take a little of the edge off Real Life Stuff. 

What more could we ask from dogs bred  for covert and gun?

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

J.F. Kernan and My Friend, The Gent

By Randy Lawrence

 He may be the most recognized artist/illustrator whose name you do not know.  But if you love an upland tableau painted for the devotee of the companion English setter gun dog,  J.F. Kernan's easel is a portal to sweet reverie.

In his heyday between the two World Wars, Joseph Francis Kernan (1878-1958) made art that glowed from the covers and pages of virtually every popular American publication, not to mention hundreds of advertisements, calendars and other promotions.  His 1932 oil on canvas, College Football, painted for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post that same year, is considered by some to be the inspiration behind the most iconic trophy in college sports, the Heisman, sculpted by Frank Eliscu two years later. 

 In 2021, the original painting entitled College Football along with a tear sheet from The Post's cover, would fall under the auctioneer's hammer at $75,000. 


Less than a year later, another oil painting made for a Saturday Evening Post cover entitled "Tying On A Fly" would be auctioned from a private collection at $126,000.   Despite industry insiders slapping him with the damned-with-faint-praise nickname, "the poor man's Norman Rockwell,"  owning an original piece of J.F. Kernan's art has become anything but a poor man's game.

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, J.F. Kernan reportedly was an uncommon team sports athlete who loved the outdoors.  He paid his art school tuition by playing professional baseball, stayed on at Boston's Pape School of Art for two years, teaching, then headed for New York City to further his illustrator's career. 

                              ***(see at bottom)

One quotation comes up again and again in online research on Kernan, his explanation for his particular story-telling angle.  Kernan said his beat was "the human side of outdoor sports, hunting, fishing, and dogs."   Happily for me, when Kernan painted a dog, that dog was most likely to be an English setter.

Critics tout Kernan's sense of humor in his work.  He wasn't above playing to convention, the standard gag featured on the covers of sporting magazines everywhere being the hunter surprised by his quarry.

Kernan was the pro's pro of commercial illustrators, forever playing to the crowd.  In selling magazines, beer, tires, or calendar art (like the first one below, published by the venerable Goes Lithographing Company, and entitled "Seven New Playmates"), what could have broader appeal than a litter of English setter puppies?

A recurring motif in Kernan's puppy portraits can be seen in the second Saturday Evening Post cover of this blog post, as one or more of the parents is lead away from the litter, supposedly headed for a day afield.

In Kernan's world (and mine), all English setter breeders worth painting are hunters.  They enjoy spending time with the litter, constantly weighing merits of the youngsters against the day when Pup goes into the game fields and shows that she's a chip off the ol' block...and a natural for hawking Grain Belt beer!

There may not be a hoarier upland cliche than The Dilemma of the Posted Covert, a quandary for Dog and Gun that Kernan believes can sometimes be solved with a good will offering.

The proferred cigar painting above became a cover for Capper's Farmer which, since 1893, has been printing "Practical Advice For The Homemade Life" in Canada and the US. Capper's Farmer is still in publication ( ).

Certainly one of the hallmarks of Kernan's portrayal of English setters is his depiction of them in our lives, and not just during hunting season.  For example, those who may occasionally or even habitually commit fishing, will appreciate the English setter visualizing a smokey streamside brag about "the big one that got away."

Maybe more than anything, though, what makes Kernan's work endearing to a gun dog aficionado is the affection apparent in each scene.  His men (and I could find no women painted into Kernan's upland world) love their dogs, and vice versa.

Kernan's portfolio includes several stock examples of the "lacing up the boots in front of the psyched and pleading gun dog" genre.  This was the only one that depicted a pointer.  Because it is of the old style, heavily marked, head-full-of-brains-not-wind pointer, I felt deputized to sneak it into a setter blog.

Part of the humor in Kernan's illustrations rests in the dogs' expressions.  In this Outdoor Life cover, the "Now what?" look on that setter's face says it all.

My favorite model for Kernan is the white mustachioed, dapper fellow who appears in numerous paintings.  I've dubbed him "The Gent," and he exudes everything that is my imaginary New England grouse gunner from another time,  a guy who could've been a charter member of Corey Ford's Lower Forty Hunting, Shooting, and Inside Straight Club.  

The Gent is dapper in his double-knotted Bean boots, battered fedora, and the necktie he always wore into his coverts.  I suspect his hunting coat reeks of pipe tobacco, his breath tart from the nip of hard cider taken for medicinal purposes back at his shooting brake, his team of horses drowsing in the October sun, the leg o' mutton case for his Ithaca or Parker double tucked under the buggy seat.

He's an easy character for my own made-up tales around Kernan's art.  The painting below is my current favorite.  

Maybe that's his grandson, home on leave from the service.  The young man has killed a ruffed grouse over The Gent's setter; as the old man admires the bird, he's thinking of other grouse on other days when he was the young man, palming a soft-mouthed retrieve from the grand sire of the dog hunting with them here.  

He handles that bird, admires that bird, in a way that says every ruffed grouse in hand is a wonder, a great good gift that, for him, can come only one way - from his coverts,  his worn double shotgun, and an English setter bred to work and look and behave just so.

Sure it's maudlin.  But that's the popular illustrator's hole card, to depict us they way we fancy ourselves, the way we wish we were.  I am far closer to the Gent than to the ramrod-straight, ruddy faced younger fellow and maybe that's the bottom line of my love of Kernan's art:  a yearning for a simpler time of sportsmanlike mores, of grouse and woodcock-rich coverts bare of bootprints and carelessly discarded shell casings, of fast, keen, feather-tailed English setters working for the Gun without bells, beepers or Elon Muskian GPS antennae.  

More than anything else, Kernan's art speaks to me in its depiction of devotion to and from the dog.  The fact that he painted setters reminiscent of the Firelight dogs I love most only seals the deal.  I may never be more than a Gent wannabe, but, like my imagined version of him,  I by gadfrey know what I like.

*** I so badly wanted the Corey Ford piece touted on Kernan's baseball player magazine cover to be an upland hunting story.  Instead it was a long piece of sappy (even for Corey) romantic fiction.  Sigh.  More promising was an article entitled "Dogs In A Big Way," featuring a full page head study of two English setters by the ubiquitous Lynn Bogue Hunt.  Sadly, the article was about a wire-haired terrier fancier's trials and tribulations in the show ring, grooming shed, and in a trans-Atlantic search for a suitable replacement for the animal repeatedly referred to as "the dog Dick."   Arg.  

Anyway, here's the full page Hunt painting from The Saturday Evening Post, 5/28/1932.  I had never seen it before researching this blog: