2016-03-31 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Tracing a Tracy Treasure- “Haunt of a woodcock: Sensation and Bang Bang”: Two years ago, a 19th century painting by J. M. Tracy of two of Westminster’s most celebrated Pointers surfaced in England, and went up for auction by Bonhams Madison Avenue Galleries.

This canvas once hung in the Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) clubhouse in Babylon where both Pointers lived, and later overlooked the 1887 grave of Sensation, the Pointer synonymous with the famous dog club. Bang Bang became Sensation’s successor as a stud, show and field dog. Both dogs were imported from England by the Club.

The Tracy painting was purchased by Mr. Seán McCarthy, current president of the WKC. This year it was featured as the cover of the WKC guidebook and as the souvenir poster commemorating the 140th anniversary of the WKC dog show. I wrote the guidebook story giving background on the painting, and while doing so discovered how the painting found its way across the Atlantic.

This Tracy painting of Sensation & Bang Bang once hung in the Babylon WKC clubhouse. It belongs to the current WKC president now. This Tracy painting of Sensation & Bang Bang once hung in the Babylon WKC clubhouse. It belongs to the current WKC president now. From 1800 to 1904, WKC leased and then owned 64 acres in Babylon, west of Southards Pond where members built a spacious Victorian clubhouse decorated with paintings and trophies, plus kennels capable of housing 200 dogs.

Painting proof: Before the auction, I found a passage in a March 13, 1886 “American Field” article by Jacob Pentz, praising the WKC Babylon clubhouse which described “the Haunt of a woodcock” in detail without citing the painting’s name. This strongly suggested the painting hung in the Babylon clubhouse from circa 1886 to 1904 when members moved to NJ. (See “Pets” Beacon 1/16/14 for the exact passage.)

Captain Henry Metcalfe was the last known owner of the painting before it resurfaced in England in 2014. Captain Henry Metcalfe was the last known owner of the painting before it resurfaced in England in 2014. The artist: John Martin Tracy (1843-1893), a descendant of Mayflower passengers, was renowned in his lifetime as a painter of dogs, horses and sporting scenes, but most of his work stayed within the families that had commissioned it. His father was an abolitionist killed in an anti-slavery uprising. His mother was a leader in both the women’s suffrage and Christian temperance. 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 well-known French sculptor. Later he purchased a farmhouse in Greenwich, CT and filled it with Revolutionary War artifacts. Tracy died at the age of 49 which is another reason why his paintings are rare.

1906 WKC auction: WKC also hosted many pigeon shoots at the Babylon clubhouse. At the turn of the century wealthy men revived interest in this controversial sport. Guests would travel from NYC on a special LIRR express to compete and enjoy lunch at the WKC clubhouse. In 1904 when pigeon shoots became illegal in NYS, WKC sold the Babylon property and moved to a clubhouse in Tenafly, NJ. Their stay was short-lived because within months of opening, NJ banned pigeon shoots too. The Tenafly clubhouse closed in 1906.

On Dec. 5, WKC auctioned off the Club’s treasures to members, including 70 works of art, books, a moose head, photos and other items at the NYC office of then WKC president Richard H. Williams. WKC archives contain a handwritten ledger recording auction sales. However, some art listings do not state the names of the paintings.

Two Tracy paintings with Sensation- “Haunt of the woodcock: Sensation and Bang Bang” and “Quail shoot in Navesink: Croxteth & Sensation”- adorned the Babylon clubhouse. And two Tracy paintings sold at this auction, both entered in the ledger as “Painting: “Pointer” by Tracy.” R.H. Williams purchased one for $50, and Harry T. Peters bought the other for $52.

Which member had which Tracy? Not sure. R.H. Williams was WKC president from 1904 until 1923. Nothing more is documented about him. However, Harry T. Peters (1881- 1948) is well known in dog and art circles. The Feb. 1, 1938 “Popular Dogs” said Peters spent his youth watching WKC pigeon shoots and played around the kennels where Sensation, Bang Bang and other prominent Pointers were kept. He became a dog judge and also

WKC show chairman from


Peters was an avid collector of lithographs years before such prints became popular. He began by gathering dog, horse and hunting prints; then expanded his collection to every aspect of 19th century Americana. Close to 1,700 lithographs, including many Currier & Ives, comprise the Peters Collection at the Smithsonian. But where is his Tracy painting?

Puzzling provenance: Who owned “Haunt of the woodcock” next? And how did it find its way to Britain? Enter Captain Henry Metcalfe. When Bonhams listed this Tracy treasure for auction in February 2015, the painting’s provenance read: “Captain Henry Metcalfe, Thence by descent.” This news posed a mystery. Metcalfe (1847-1927) of Cold Spring, NY, a contemporary of the WKC members, didn’t appear to have any ties to the Club, dogs or art. His parents died before the 1906 auction, and he was an only child, so the painting wasn’t a family heirloom. It’s remotely possible he purchased or received the painting from R.H. Williams. Harry T. Peters seems a more unlikely a seller.

Metcalfe was quite successful. A graduate of West Point, class of 1868, Metcalfe was an instructor of gunnery and ordnance at the Military Academy; inventor of improvements to small arms as well as methods to make managerial and accounting processes of production more efficient and accurate. He ran for Congress in 1896. His home “Cascabella” was considered the “prettiest in the section.” He convinced the secretary of war to change the Cadets’ target trajectory when stray shells fired from West Point were bombarding his Cold Spring neighbors across the river. Metcalfe was an early automobile enthusiast. A family friend survived the sinking of the Titanic, but her husband perished.

Both Metcalfe and his wife Harriet (1850-1930) are buried at West Point. They had one daughter and two granddaughters. The younger, Eva Camac Isitt born in 1903, married a WWI pilot, a member of the Royal Flying Corps who was 36 years her senior. The couple resided in Bexell, England and later her mother (Metcalfe’s daughter) moved there to, which could explain how “Haunt of a woodcock” got to Britain.

“Haunt of the woodcock” has gone full circle. Both Sensation and Bang Bang were whelped in England. The first home of the canine canvas was within view of Sensation’s Babylon grave marker. Then it belonged either to a WKC president or show chairman. The artwork traveled across the Atlantic, and over a century later, returned home to Mr. Seán McCarthy, current WKC president. John Martin Tracy would be happy to know about his Pointer painting’s WKC odyssey.

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