With Paint And Brush, Franklin B. Voss Truly Captured 20th Century American Sporting Life

Oct 27, 2005 - 10:00 PM

The section in the stacks at the National Sporting Library [in Middleburg, Va.] devoted to sporting art is near the reference desk, easily accessible, which is proper because sporting art is one of the most popular segments of the collection for researchers and pleasure readers.

The books are shelved alphabetically by the artists’ names: C.W. Anderson, Paul Brown, Lionel Edwards, Michael Lyne, George Ford Morris, Sir Alfred Munnings, Richard Stone Reeves, George Stubbs, and many more. In the V section, the name Voss was conspicuous by its absence; surprisingly, a book had never been written on the man many sporting art enthusiasts, including myself, feel is America’s foremost equine painter of the twentieth century.

Three years ago I decided the omission should be righted, and I was confident that I was the one to do it. As I relate in Chapter One, I knew Frank Voss and was a friend and neighbor in Maryland of members of the Voss family. I am a longtime admirer of Voss’ work–no less than thirty-five years ago I wrote an article on his art for The Maryland Horse magazine–and it is my privilege to own three of his paintings. Furthermore, my sporting interests are the same as Frank’s: foxhunting, steeplechasing, and horses, horses, horses. I have a feel for his work, and I often react to his paintings by wishing I were in the painting, enjoying the fun.

Some of the fifty-some paintings I selected bring back memories of people such as Bryce Wing and Louise Bedford, who were my idols. Others are of horses I “knew,” such as Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Shut Out, Citation, and Hill Prince, and horses before my time such as Man o’ War, Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Equipoise, Billy Barton, and Alligator.

Many paintings in the book are of huntsmen, including quite a few that were good friends of my stepfather, Bryce Wing. Some of the paintings show sport with the Elkridge-Harford Hunt [Md.], which was Frank’s favorite hunt, and where I hunted as a child and young adult, sometimes with Frank. In addition, Frank’s versatility is indicated by the inclusion of associated subjects such as carriage driving, poultry, Norwich terriers, Bassets, Beagles, and children.

I’m confident that you’ll enjoy Frank Voss’ art, and I hope my text will give a feel of the era in which Voss worked (1912 until his death in 1953), a period many consider the heyday of American sporting life.

A Basset At Work
Collection of Mrs. Peyton S. Cochran Jr.,
oil on canvas, 12 by 18 inches, no date

Speculation surrounds the origin of Voss’ undated painting. Some art historians feel it’s a study for a finished picture for a client, or, more likely, a gift to a Basset owner.

Nina Rogers–whose husband, the late Charles R. Rogers, was the founder and huntsman of the Timber Ridge Bassets in Maryland–thinks the painting may have been a gift to Jane Fowler Bassett, a neighbor of Voss. Bassett once owned a Basset.

At any rate, Mrs. Peyton S. Cochran Jr. (known to friends as Jeep)–the founder, master, and huntsman of the Calf Pasture Bassets in Glyndon, Maryland–now owns A Basset at Work.

The breed’s name is a derivation of the French word bas, meaning a low thing or dwarf. By the late 1800s, English dog fanciers imported Bassets, and it’s believed that George Washington owned Bassets, given to him by Lafayette following the American Revolution. The American Kennel Club first registered Bassets in 1885.

Cochran feels that the American Kennel Club standards for judging Bassets are detrimental to the hunting ability of the breed. “The AKC Bassets are way too bulky and too close to the ground,” she said. “I’ll guarantee that the belly of this year’s champion at the Westminster Kennel Club Show wouldn’t clear the ground by an inch. There’s no way he can hunt in the field.”

As a result, Cochran’s breeding program features a cross with the larger, more athletic English Bassets, and she imported one from France several years ago. “I’d love to have a pack of hounds just like the one in my painting,” Cochran said. “He’s got everything I look for.”

A Basset at Work once again indicates Voss’ versatility. The painting has great animation, and the impressionistic background helps make the subject stand out.

Dallas Leith’s Hounds
Collection of Mr. & Mrs.
E. Edward Houghton, oil on canvas, 24 by 30 inches, 1944

This is one of my favorite Voss paintings. It showcases Voss’ mastery of animal anatomy, and the picture flows as the viewer’s eye follows the hounds from the woods, over the coop, and into the field. It makes you want to be right behind the pack on a good field hunter.

Most importantly, the painting is a tribute to huntsman Dallas Leith, who was responsible for creating the Elkridge-Harford’s great pack of Crossbred foxhounds during Edward S. Voss’ years as master.

Leith was born near Middleburg, Virginia, and looked forward to a life of work on his family’s farm and to hunting with his father’s pack of foxhounds. “I was the sixth generation of my mother’s family raised on our farm, which is down the road from Institute Farm [the headquarters of the National Beagle Club],” Leith stated in a 1987 article in The Chronicle of the Horse. “From the time I was eight or ten I hunted with my father over parts of the territory of the Middleburg Hunt on days when Middleburg didn’t hunt.”

Leith’s plans changed abruptly, however, in 1930. “One of the whips of the Harford Hunt [now the Elkridge-Harford] was injured in a fall. Their master contacted Daniel C. Sands, the master of the Middleburg Hunt, about a temporary replacement. Mr. Sands asked if I’d be willing to go up to Maryland for a while to help his friend. I thought, ‘Oh, for a month or so, I’ll do that.’ “

Dallas Leith stayed put. He was employed by Elkridge-Harford for sixty years and was its huntsman for forty-two years, less three years in the Army during World War II.

In 1934 the Harford Hunt merged with the Elkridge Hounds, which had a territory on the outskirts of Baltimore. “There was a vital missing link, though. The hounds weren’t all that good at the time,” Leith said. “Mr. Howard Bruce, the master of Elkridge, gave me eight hundred dollars to go to Virginia and buy some American dog hounds to breed to our bitches. I purchased hounds from Henry Matthews, who had a farmer pack in the Bull Run Mountains near Aldie. Matthews always had hounds for sale, and they were the best.”

Edward S. Voss, who became Elkridge-Harford’s master in 1939, was a proponent of English foxhounds; Leith, naturally, of American hounds. They compromised. In time, Elkridge-Harford’s pack of Crossbred hounds was acknowledged as one of the best in the United States.

Leith retired as Elkridge-Harford’s huntsman in 1978 and remained as huntsman emeritus until his death in 1990 at age eighty-two. He has been accorded the highest honor bestowed on American huntsmen–inclusion in the Huntsmen’s Room at the Museum of Hounds and Hunting in Leesburg, Virginia.

In addition to being an extraordinary huntsman and hound breeder, Dallas was one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever known. Jane Fowler Bassett, a long-time foxhunter with Elkridge-Harford and long-time chairman of the committee responsible for the building and repair of hunt panels throughout the territory, commissioned this painting. Upon her death, it was left to her niece, Mrs. Edward (Binnie) Houghton.

J. Watson Webb
Collection of Shelburne Museum, oil on canvas, 28 by 26 inches, 1923

J. Watson Webb was the master of the Shelburne Hounds near Burlington, Vermont, from 1905 to 1955. He also was a key member of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, founded in 1907 as the governing body of the sport, and its president from 1948 to 1954.

Webb’s son, Samuel B. Webb, described his renowned father in Alexander Mackay-Smith’s book, Masters of Foxhounds:

“Father was born in 1884, and he was never very far away from a horse or a hound, be it a coach horse, polo pony, quail pony, Scottish moor pony or Alaskan packhorse. In hunting, English and Welsh hounds were his preferences. He also bred a terrier for going to ground known as the Shelburne. These terriers went to almost every state in the union.”

Webb started his Shelburne Hounds in 1903 as a Beagle pack and switched to foxhounds in 1905. His pack was one of the first to be recognized by the Masters of Foxhounds Association. Shelburne hunted two or three days a week during September, October and November over an open, rolling countryside with small coverts on the eastern shores of Lake Champlain, seventy-five miles or so from the Canadian border.

Samuel Webb reminisced:

“All of Father’s five children hunted, and in the early years a good many officers from nearby Fort Ethan Allen joined in. The majority of the field, though, usually consisted of family and friends. [The guest books in 1922, 1925 and 1951 list the presence of Frank Voss.] Due to Father’s failing health, the hounds were disposed of in 1955 ? In 1960, I was the master of ceremonies at my parents’ golden wedding anniversary. I think I enjoyed that occasion as much as they did. By the end of the year, they both passed away, but the heritage they left their children will always be priceless.”

Frank Voss succeeded in capturing the area as a wonderland at the time with his painting of J. Watson Webb on his favorite hunter, Vulture, and with five of his hounds. The names of the hounds and horse are found at the base of the painting.

Dr. Archibald Cary Randolph
Collection of Shelby W. Bonnie,
oil on canvas, 28 by 36 inches, 1947

Dr. A.C. (Archie) Randolph, a medical doctor who devoted a large part of his life to foxhunting and being the master of the Piedmont Fox Hounds in Upperville, Virginia, once told a friend: “Birthing [babies] and foxhunting each takes pretty much a full day. I’d rather go foxhunting.”

And the latter is precisely what Dr. Randolph did for twenty-six years as Piedmont’s leader, until Parkinson’s disease forced him to step down in 1954.

Alexander Mackay-Smith, an avid foxhunter who was editor of The Chronicle of the Horse from 1949 to 1974, wrote about Voss’ painting of Dr. Randolph when it appeared on the cover of the Chronicle in 1950:

“Frank Voss has done one of his finest works in his painting of Dr. Randolph. Those of us who have hunted with the Piedmont Fox Hounds will instantly recognize the familiar figure of its master and his grand old hunter Ranter. From the splendid facial likeness to every detail of the manner in which he sits on a horse, and to Ranter himself, the artist from Maryland has made a superb painting ?

“He has painted Dr. Randolph and Ranter with an impressive background of some of Piedmont’s best country. It is a sweep well known to Piedmont followers, for hounds have found and pursued many a fox through the midst of it. Ranter was regularly hunted by Dr. Randolph for fourteen years. He is a great field hunter that fits well the tradition behind the hunting country and its sporting master.”

As a youth in his native Maryland, W. Plunket Stewart hunted a pack of foxhounds with his elder brother, Redmond. In 1892 Redmond Stewart founded the Green Spring Valley Hounds, hunting the hounds himself, with Plunket as his whipper-in.

The Stewart brothers also enjoyed riding in steeplechase races. In 1898 Plunket won the Maryland Hunt Cup, while Redmond rode the second horse to finish. In 1904 Redmond was the winner with Plunket just behind him.

With Redmond Stewart hunting the Green Spring country and his brother-in-law, Frank A. Bonsal Sr., hunting the neighboring country to the north, the choice hunting territories in Maryland were spoken for. Consequently, Plunket Stewart, whose ambition since childhood was to have his own pack of hounds and a territory in which to hunt them, cast his eyes to the north, focusing on an expanse of lovely rolling countryside near Unionville, just across the Mason-Dixon Line in southeastern Pennsylvania, twenty miles northwest of Wilmington, Delaware.

Stewart described his search in A. Henry Higginson and Julian Ingersoll’s book Hunting in the United States and Canada, published in 1928:

“In 1911 and 1912, I found myself scouring Chester and Delaware counties by motor looking for such a country, which would be available and not be an interference to an existing recognized hunt? One day I happened to be bumping along the road that runs from Unionville to Doe Run. The beauty of the country and the splendid footing afforded by the fine old sod fields made me suddenly realize that here was the country that I would like to have ? I obtained the consent of Mr. Charles E. Mather, who controlled the Brandywine country immediately to the east, and in 1912 I bought my first property of 211 acres known as Chesterland.”

Stewart named his hunt Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds. The Higginson/Ingersoll book explained the choice of Cheshire in the title: “[Cheshire] was old English for Chester, as in Chester County [Pa.]. Mr. Stewart prefixed his own name to differentiate his hunt from England’s Cheshire Hunt.”

Nancy Mohr stated in her book, The Lady Blows the Horn (a biography of Stewart’s stepdaughter, America’s premier female huntsman, Nancy Hannum), that Plunket Stewart offered farmers fair prices for their land, along with lifetime tenancy, and put cash on the kitchen table to seal deals. He would then either add the land to his holdings or sell it to a person who liked foxhunting and open spaces.

In short order, Stewart developed a pack of English foxhounds that gave excellent sport, as good as any pack in the United States. Stewart also became a national leader in foxhunting as the president of the Masters of Foxhounds Association from 1938 until his death in 1948.

The Chronicle of the Horse editor Stacy Lloyd wrote in Stewart’s obituary: “This was no ordinary man. He was one of the greatest sportsmen of his era, one who made the Cheshire Hounds a household name among those who hold a foxhound dear, and one who had strict adherence to a code of sportsmanship too little practiced nowadays. He kept a standard flying high, a standard seldom seen elsewhere.”

Category: Hunting
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