Sunday, August 3, 2014

Rare Bird: The Blackstone White-Breasted Nuthatch

The estate sale at the little old house in Sierra Madre was, to say the least, highly anticipated.  People started lining up to get a numbered ticket to get inside, 24 hours before it started.  Some of them had traveled from other states and planned their family vacations around this estate sale. (This happens sometimes, at a sale that's well-advertised and offers thousands of highly collectible or resellable items.)

I showed up early in the afternoon before the sale started, got my entry ticket (marked #24), and came back early the next morning. I felt sorry for the woman who told me she had shown up at 5 a.m. (for an 8 a.m. start) thinking she would be one of the first people in line, only to discover that she was number 112.  (At least she felt better than the people who arrived after she did.)

The morning of the sale dawned clear and calm. When it was light outside, the estate sale company employees started setting up tables in the front yard and putting out large flat boxes full of some of the odds and ends they'd found inside the house and garage.  From my place in line, I craned my neck to see what was inside the boxes, and spotted a few things I hoped to get.  When the sale finally started, I went first to the tables and started carefully loading small figurines into my shopping bag.  

Biblically, a lot of them came in twos:

A pair of Royal Doulton "K" series miniature penguins.

Ditto for the Doulton "K" series hares...

The Hagen-Renaker lop-eared rabbits...

And the Kay Finch cats.

One little critter, though was all by himself: tiny, lightweight, carved from some sort of wood and perched on a base.   I felt sorry for his solitary state and brought him home, where I looked at him more closely.  My first thought was, Whoever carved and painted this, loved birds.

On the bottom of the base of my tiny new friend was written the number 4, and the bird's name, W. B. Nuthatch.   (Yes, I know that's short for "White-Breasted Nuthatch," but I still like to think of him as "W.B.") 

A sticker under the writing reads HAND CARVED & PAINTED BY BLACKSTONE.

I went online to see if I could find any information on W.B. Nuthatch and his creator or creators.  It turns out that this particular White-Breasted Nuthatch is a pretty rare bird indeed.

Decoy Magazine's website has a good article by Jim Cullen on the man who helped create little W.B. Nuthatch -- the New Hampshire artist Jess Blackstone (1909-1988).

When Jess was a boy, his father, Arthur, introduced him to wood carving.  Cullen writes:

[Jess] Blackstone was a talented, trained and accomplished artist. He had a sure hand and worked quickly. His ornithological background, combined with his artistic abilities, enabled him to produce a miniature bird carving that was correct and complete. The essential feathers are placed with no excess interpretation, resulting in a clean, meticulous rendition with no wasted effort.

Jess Blackstone kept careful records of his work; the article says he carved 371 white-breasted nuthatches during his lifetime.

But the article also states that Jess Blackstone hand-wrote all the information about the birds he carved and painted on their bases; it didn't say anything about gold foil stickers.  That told me I needed to do further research.

After digging through a few more websites, I found a source via Google Books that said that Jess Blackstone and his father Arthur also worked together at times to carve and paint small birds. In Birds in Wood and Paint, Joseph H. Ellis notes that Jess decided to give up his job as a sign painter in the 1930s to work with his dad:

Early carvings produced by the father-and-son team have a gold foil label that simply says "Hand Carved and Painted by Blackstone."

Jess later branched out on his own, moved to New Hampshire and sold his own carved songbirds through the League of New Hampshire Arts and Crafts. 

I contacted Mr. Cullen, who wrote the article for Decoy, and he told me he thinks that the little carved nuthatch is indeed the result of the collaboration between Arthur, the father and Jess, the son.  

Their mutual love of birds and their craftsmanship is apparent, even in this small example.


Here's a YouTube interview with Joseph Ellis on his reference book on carved birds:

There are pictures of lots of other Jess Blackstone birds here:

An article reproduced (without citing the original source) here, is an interview written during Jess Blackstone's lifetime. It describes and illustrates how he worked with wood. 

And here's the web page for the real white-breasted nuthatch:

1 comment:

  1. I recently received two carved bird pins that are on the original cards with the same Blackstone legend! One is a cardinal and the other a chickadee. Came from an antique shop in Chicago!