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EDWIN MEGARGEE



Edwin Megargee

Portrayer of America’s Finest
Bovines, Equines, and Canines.

Google “Edwin Megargee,” and between the investment banker and the shrink you’ll find illustrator and artist S. Edwin Megargee, Jr. (1883–1958), known for his portraits of the most famous purebred dogs of the first half of the 20 th century, and his hunting dogs and sporting art for Derrydale Press and Field & Stream.

Megargee, the eldest son of 12 children, was born outside of Philadelphia to a wealthy attorney and sportsman with roots in County Wicklow, Ireland, and his Italian wife who’d previously aspired to marry Christ. Edwin grew up around gundogs, and later an array of barnyard animals when the family moved to a 22-acre New Jersey farm during World War I. When not sailing Barnegat Bay or fishing the Chesapeake, Megargee was in the principal’s office for drawing horses instead of learning arithmetic. At 16, he announced to his father his intention “to be an artist or nothing. I believe he agreed with me on both counts,” recounted Megargee.

After a year at Georgetown University, he spent four years studying art at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, graduating in 1904. His first jobs, illustrating newspaper stories and children’s books, taught him to tell an entire tale in straightforward images with character; his dog paintings would have that same narrative quality. Megargee then set himself up in a Greenwich Village studio at 41 Union Square, where he worked down the hall from Carl Rungius and Lynn Bogue Hunt, while attending the Art Students League, which opened in 1875 as an alternate to the conservative National Academy of Design.

Although avant-garde art movements dominated the early-century New York art scene, Megargee, who preferred scientific thoroughness to gushing Romanticism, still found teachers whose vision and methods suited him. These included Kenyon Cox, who painted portraits, nudes, and mural-sized landscapes in a traditional and realistic manner, and taught his students draftsmanship and color theory; the gifted illustrator Walter Appleton Clark, who did book covers, cartoons, and magazine illustrations; and Vincent DuMond, the American Impressionist landscape artist associated with the School of Lyme, whose palette turns up in Megargee’s backgrounds.

Megargee’s publishing career began in 1911 when he won a competition to illustrate a textbook for a correspondence course on raising poultry. The resulting series of delightful dictionary-perfect illustrations of barnyard fowl, from silver-penciled hamburgs to red jungle fowl, grew into 70 striking plates for the 1921 Book of Poultry by Thomas McGrew. Megargee’s lushly painted pheasants were so accurate and appealing that Charles Beebe included them in his four-volume A Monograph of Pheasants. Megargee’s illustrations of poultry and livestock for pamphlets, advertisements, and calendars led to commissions from a Who’s Who of prominent owners, breeders, and sportsmen for portraits of their purebred horses, blooded livestock, and pedigree dogs. Yet when his father died during the Depression, Megargee barely managed to support his three unmarried sisters, brother, and great aunt, with portraits of the parish priests of a Brooklyn church.

The list of books he illustrated, especially titles about dogs, would grow to over 20, starting with The Story of an Irish Wolfhound in 1915. His first “breed book” was the Derrydale Press limited edition, The Dalmatian, by Franklin J. Willcock (1927). In 1946, he combined his encyclopedic knowledge and ease with his artist’s tools to illustrate and write stylish prose for Horses, profiling the equine nation from Clydesdales to polo ponies. He did the same in 1954, turning his color paintings and line drawings of hunting dogs in Julie Campbell Tatham’s World Book of Dogs into his comprehensive The Dog Dictionary, in which he also diagrams canine facial anatomy, and the different types of ears, tails, and feet. These books became the standard references for several generations of animal lovers.

Megargee’s 1935 marriage to Jean Inglee, the only child of a real estate fortune, changed his life. Her father was also the “Father of the American Gordon setter,” a prominent dog breeder, and president of the American Kennel Club. While living on his father-in-law’s 130-acre estate near Dunellen, New Jersey, Megargee spent weekends on shooting estates and summers on Martha’s Vineyard. Along with artist Marguerite Kirmse and her wealthy, dog-loving husband George W. Cole, they started a joint venture as breeders and exhibitors of Tobermory Scottish terriers.

Megargee made no apologies for painting purebred animals: “Blood will tell . . . To me a purebred animal seems proud of his lineage.” He showed the highest standards of each breed’s key points and the physical features required for the dog’s life for which each breed was developed. He wrote, “The standard is not a set of arbitrary requirements formulated to satisfy the whims of fashion. Rather it was written to preserve and perfect a particular type of dog, bred for a very definite purpose.” When commissioned to decorate the 24 kennels aboard the liner SS America, launched in 1940 by Eleanor Roosevelt, Megargee used only champion dogs as models.

Being a breeder and exhibitor of Scottish terriers, and an AKC delegate, judge, and director, only enhanced his expertise and prestige as an artist. He was licensed to judge retrievers, setters, pointers, English cocker spaniels, springer spaniels, and standard schnauzers. This provided enough hands-on groping to satisfy any artist passionate about animal anatomy. But “personality is the hardest thing to put on canvas or copper plate,” said Megargee, who preferred to study his subject on its own territory rather than in his studio, as a dog’s inherent urge to investigate its surroundings prevents it from quickly settling down.

 

 

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Although he did only a few pet portraits, he admitted that four-legged friends often have more expression than show dogs. Of course, purebred show dogs are trained to freeze upon command into their most flattering best-of-breed stance. Megargee, a fast and skilled draftsman, would sketch the dog’s four or five best spontaneous poses and then select the most attractive one.

Research took more time than actual painting, which was based on acquired technique, correct animal anatomy, and a fundamentally sound sketch. Gallery owner William Secord notes that, “Megargee did not aspire to more than the exact recording of the likeness of an animal. He saw this as a strength rather than a detraction in his work.”

His frank compositions of animals, model-still and more or less broadside, or dogs alerted to action by a flushed bird, and use of background landscape features to build his composition and depth of field, make him an artist, not just an illustrator. His definitive portraits of Great Pyrenees, painted with ice-white and blue mountaintops and mossy green alpine pastures, contributed to Mary Crane establishing the breed in the States in the 1930s.

Megargee’s many hunting dogs are presented within the simplified natural settings, seasons, and game that define them. In his illustrations for a 1958 National Geographic article called, “Dogs Work For Man,” Megargee’s bold Irish Wolfhound and Scottish Deerhound help bring down coyote and roe deer; beagles pursue cottontails; a Basset hound takes scent and dolefully gives tongue; and black and tan coonhounds, in dense, softly painted Southern woods, bay a raccoon.

Sportsmen especially seek out his 14.5 x 30-inch aquatints, American Shooting Scenes, published in a 1930/31 edition of 250 by Derrydale Press. It includes Megargee’s emotionally unembellished woodcock and grouse hunts over pointers, and a pheasant hunt over an English springer spaniel that captures all the atmosphere of November country sport. In these, however, he lavished attention on nature, expressing nuances of depth, light, and shadow in his aquatints—an etching process, used most famously by Goya, that gives many old English sporting prints their charm. Invented in France in the 1760s, aquatinting imitates the effects and wide range of tonal gradation of watercolor washes, from pure white through a gamut of grays to velvety black. Shades are created by successively varnishing (protecting) and acid-bathing (biting) the copper plate. To obtain pure white, that area is “stopped out” or completely protected by varnish; shorter acid baths and protecting the plate with varnish once the desired tone is achieved results in the subtlest gradations.

Other collectible color hunt and field scenes published by Derrydale include the pointer Staunch and the English setter Steady, along with Brace Mates and Honors Even, beautifully reproduced on fine paper in the 1930s. Also popular are Megargee’s 1934 Field & Stream prints of duck, goose, quail, pheasant, and snipe shooting, followed by the 1945 chromolithographs for his Portfolio of Gun Dogs at Work, of the English springer and cocker spaniel, pointer, English setter, Chesapeake Bay, and Labrador retriever in the field.

Smaller budgets can content themselves with searching e-Bay for Megargee “dog advertisements” for Fleischmann’s dry gin. Or for free, just walk into a bus station: in 1934 Megargee did the iconic logo for Greyhound.

Brooke Chilvers went on an Internet shopping spree to track down Megargee-illustrated books. Her booty included the 1936 edition of Modern Breaking, A Book About Bird Dogs, illustrated with line drawings by Megargee and based on Edmund Osthaus’s 1906 artwork in the first edition, for $3.99.

 

 

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