William Harnden Foster
Thanks to Tom Davis for allowing us to republish his wonderful, in depth essay on one of the most extraordinarily talented men ever to have been involved with bird dogs and field trials. This story was first published in Pointing Dog Journal in the 1998 January/February issue. Several people quoted in the text have since departed — Bob Wehle, Earl Crangle and “Tap” Tapply.
When the first edition of New England Grouse Shooting came out in the early months of 1942, it created no great stir. There was a war on, after all, and America had more pressing things on its mind. The few reviews that appeared, while favorable, left the impression that it was a solid (if unspectacular) effort, a book squarely in the “how-to” vein that would be of particular interest to the New England grouse hunters and of passing interest — at best — to others.
As time went on, of course, New England Grouse Shooting came to be recognized as one of the true classics of American sporting literature. Transcending the geographical boundaries of its subject matter, it was embraced by sportsmen all across the country, sportsmen entranced by the gentle authority of the text and the wondrous pen-and-ink drawings that accompanied it. It became a kind of religious tract, preaching a gospel of style, comportment, and respect that grouse hunters everywhere sought to emulate. Life imitated art, and New England Grouse Shooting defined, for all time, the look and feel of the sport, capturing its elusive essence between hard covers.
Sadly, the man who wrote and illustrated New England Grouse Shooting, William Harnden Foster, never knew the place of honor his book ultimately occupied. For that matter, he never even saw it in print. Scant months before it was published, William Harnden Foster fell dead of a heart attack at the running of the 1941 New England Bird Dog Championship. He was just 55 years old.
“New England Grouse Shooting” graces the dust jacket of one of the book’s early editions.
Ironically, while the esteem accorded New England Grouse Shooting has kept Foster’s name (and fame) alive, it has also had the unintended effect of overshadowing — if not completely obscuring— his many other accomplishments. The “average” literate sportsman is probably aware that he had a hand in the invention of skeet, beyond that however, Foster is, for most of us, a name without a face. And that’s a pity, because Bill Foster (his oft-used full name implies a stuffiness that he was totally without) was one of the most diversely talented, influential and just plain interesting figures in the annals of American field sports.
From 1921 to 1936, Foster served as Editor of the Boston-based National Sportsman and Hunting and Fishing magazines, two of the most prominent publications of the day. In addition to his editorial duties, he wrote columns and features (some of which he later adapted for New England Grouse Shooting) and did numerous cover paintings. Footnote-to-history department: In 1925, Foster let one of his friends use one of his paintings, “The Moose Hunter,” to jazz up a little mail order catalog he’d been distributing since 1912. The friend’s name was L.L. Bean; Foster was the first artist ever to grace the cover of the Bean catalog.
Indeed, before he was a writer or an editor, Foster was an artist. And while he possessed the native talent and formal training to paint literally anything (more on this later), bird dogs were the subject matter closest to his heart. He was the most celebrated sporting artist of his era — and one of the finest of any era, the peer in every respect of John Tracy, Edmund Osthaus, Percival Rosseau, Gustav Muss-Arnolt, and Maud Earl. Foster painted virtually all of the notable New England field trial winners of the 1920s and ’30s — Lexington Jake, Chief Inspector, Colonial Lady M et al — as well as dogs of national stature such as Becky Broom Hill, Nugym, and Village Boy. At the time of his death in 1941, he had a standing commission to paint each year’s National Champion for the Dupont calendar, a series that included his stirring portraits of Sport’s Peerless Pride, Ariel, Lester’s Enjoy’s Wahoo, and Air Pilot’s Sam. It wasn’t until 1970, when Robert Abbett turned his formidable skills to this arena, that American sporting dog art found a worthy successor to Bill Foster.
1939 National Champion Sport’s Peerless Pride
1940 National Champion Lester’s Enjoy’s Wahoo
But Foster didn’t simply paint dogs; in the fullest and truest sense, he lived them. In a region regarded as a setter hotbed, he was a dyed-in-the-wool pointer man, owning and campaigning such well-known dogs as Ding’s Palmetto Kent, Dapple Joe’s Ben, and Along Came Ruth, a “blue hen” who produced a number of important winners and had a lasting impact on the breed. It goes without saying that Foster gunned over the same dogs he ran in trials. It would have been unthinkable for him not to; he was the author, after all, of the “New England Standard,” the standard that includes the famous declaration, “in New England there should be no distinction between a field trial dog and a shooting dog. The former is merely the latter on public display.”
Bill Foster with a pair of pointers
That sounds like something Bob Wehle might say — and it’s certainly one of the principles that has guided the Elhew Kennels breeding program from Day One. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Wehle considers Foster one of his great mentors.
“I met Bill Foster at a field trial in Massachusetts in 1939,” Wehle recalls. “I’d entered Elhew Midge in the shooting dog stake, but I was late getting to the trial because a storm the night before had knocked down all the signs. Midge’s brace had already gone off by the time I arrived, but the field trial committee consented to letting me run her as a bye at the end of the stake.
“Well, by then it was almost dusk, and after being seeded with quail all day, the course was full of birds. Midge had nine finds to win hands down. After the trial, one of the judges came over to congratulate me. He was a dignified, middle-aged gentleman, and I was only 19. ‘Where did you get such a marvelous dog?,’ he asked. That was my introduction to Bill Foster.”
As every student of the Elhew bloodline knows, it was Foster who first advocated breeding Midge to Lexington Jake, a circumstance Wehle describes as “the single most important event” in the development of the strain. “He was a gentleman to the core,” recalls Wehle — a sentiment echoed by the legendary professional trainer, Earl Crangle.
“Mr. Foster was a wonderful, old-school gentleman,” Crangle attests, “one of the most talented individuals I ever met. I knew him well and always looked forward to seeing him when he came to the Orange County trials in Verbank, New York. He judged my dogs on several occasions; I recall him placing one of them second in the Pheasant Futurity. I did the training on a beautiful little pointer female — And Then Julia — that was out of his great bitch, Along Came Ruth. Julia later placed in the New England Futurity — Mr. Foster got the breeder’s money — and eventually had over sixty wins.”
Along Came Ruth
Breeder, judge, competitor, framer of standards, club officer (he was for many years the secretary of the Association of New England Field Trial Clubs), reporter, historian (he delivered a paper entitled “Bird Dogs in New England” at the 1930 New England Game Conference), painter: In the world of bird dogs and field trials, there is literally no capacity in which Bill Foster did not serve. In his native heath, especially, it’s doubtful that anyone did more to promote and popularize the ideal of the “class” dog. To this day, there are those who believe he has never been properly recognized for his contributions in this regard.
Frank Foss, for one. “It galls me that he hasn’t yet been elected to the Field Trial Hall of Fame,” says Foss, a 60-year veteran of the field trial wars who, as a young man, was one of Foster’s protégés. It was Foster, in fact, who undertook the heartbreakingly difficult task of reporting the 1941 New England Championship upon Foster’s death.
“I was the last person Bill Foster spoke to,” Foss relates. “We were at Scotland, Connecticut; I was one of the judges and Bill was reporting the running for The American Field. We had been walking all day. I turned to make a comment to Bill, and as I did his left knee buckled and he collapsed on his back. Dr. John Meachen was in the gallery, and he moved in quickly to apply aid. It hit like a thunderclap when Doc Meachen uttered the words, ‘The gentleman is dead.’ We learned later that Bill had been suffering from angina for some time. He hadn’t told any of us; it was just like him not to want us to worry.”
Another small irony: For a number of years, Foster had, as a special award to the winner, done an oil painting of the New England “Dog of the Year.” With the “deed of gift” extinguished upon his death, the Association of New England Field Trial Clubs established the William Harnden Foster Memorial Trophy to fill the void. The trophy’s first winner? Colonial Lady M, owned by Dr. John Meachen.
Foster was born July 22, 1886, in Andover, Massachusetts. For all intents and purposes, Andover remained his home the rest of his life, although in 1908 he built a summer cottage and studio near the ocean in South Freeport, Maine (where he became acquainted with L.L. Bean). He came from sturdy Yankee stock on both sides — but it was his mother’s people, the Harndens, who were the bird hunters. A great uncle, Henry Harnden — the same Henry Harnden who led the cavalry detachment that rounded up fugitive CSA President Jefferson Davis at the close of the Civil War — kept fine “native” setters of the Webster strain.
The two men who most profoundly influenced young William, however, were his grandfather, Everel Harnden, “farmer, stone mason, trapper, and market hunter,” and Uncle Gene Harnden, locomotive engineer and “ace-high pa’tridge hunter.” As so piquantly described in “The Little Gun,” the opening chapter of New England Grouse Shooting, it was in their company that Foster’s abiding passion for the bird, and for the sport, was forged:
“Like most people I have had my moments of self-importance, but never in later years, anything that compared with those when I drove out of the door-yard, wedged in between two of the best pa’tridge shots in the country, with a half dozen light loads in my pocket and with “The Little Gun” wrapped up in a horse blanket under the seat.” (Just so there’s no mistake, when Foster speaks of driving out, he means in a horse-drawn wagon; remember this is 1898.)
The Little Gun, a Damascus-barreled 16-gauge Parker with exposed hammers, accounted for Foster’s first grouse. He was 12 years old. And when bursting with pride, he showed it to the “menfolk” assembled in “the square New England farmhouse at the crossroads,” his grandfather, the old market hunter, solemnly reached into his coin purse and gave him 65 cents for it.
From his uncle — and from his father, who was also a “railroad man” — Foster inherited a love of trains. Indeed with the exception of his painting of dogs, Foster’s dramatic canvases of steam engines brought him his greatest fame as an artist. He first entered the national limelight, in fact, with a series of train paintings reproduced in Scribner’s magazine in 1910. Scribner’s was one of the leading magazines of the day, featuring such writers as Edith Wharton, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Galsworthy, and artists such as N.C. Wyeth, A.B. Frost, James Montgomery Flagg, and Philip Goodwin. Foster’s contribution, entitled “All in a Day’s Run,” was so well-received that the magazine assigned him to Panama to cover the building of the canal. This, in turn, led to more work, not only for magazines but for corporate clients as well — Oldsmobile, to name one.
”All in a Day’s Run”(1910) and “Highways of the Sky”(1911), “Setting the Pace” (1909).
Foster had learned his trade from the best in the business. After graduating from high school in Andover, he enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. One of his instructors there was undoubtedly Frank Benson, the renown sportsman-artist who, by dint of his virile etchings, almost single-handedly created the genre of the modern sporting print. From Boston, Foster moved on to Howard Pyle Art Colony in Wilmington, Delaware. Pyle was widely regarded as the finest book illustrator of his time, and he counted N. C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish among his famous pupils. Foster studied with Pyle for three years, perfecting the elegant draftsmanship and rich, yet subtle sense of color that were to become his trademarks — and that would vault him to the top rank of American Sporting artists.
It is this writer’s considered opinion that Foster’s dog drawings, in particular, are unexcelled, his only serious rival in this respect being A.B. Frost. Like the pen and inks that give New England Grouse Shooting its marvelous flavor, the sketches in Frost’s famous Shooting Pictures portfolio are little gems — the setter head on the cover is a bonafide masterpiece. While Frost was 35 years Foster’s senior, the sporting milieu that shaped and informed their art was very much the same.
Artists A.B. Frost, Frank Benson, and Howard Pyle, no doubt, influenced Foster’s work.
In 1921, Foster was named Editor of National Sportsman and Hunting and Fishing magazines. Five years later, in the February, 1926 issue of national Sportsman, Foster and a friend, Charles Davies, first described the shooting game that would come to be called skeet. The basic concept dated back to 1915, when Foster, Davies, and Davies’ brother, Henry, cobbled together a 12-station trapshooting course in an attempt to stimulate the angles and flight patterns of flushing grouse. The winner of the $100 prize the magazine offered for the best name went to a reader who suggested skeet, an old Norse word meaning to “shoot.”
Foster was the first president of the National Skeet Shooting Association, and upon retiring from his editorial duties in 1936 began writing a regular column about the sport for Outdoor Life. Not surprisingly, when the Skeet Hall of Fame was established in 1970, he was the first inductee. According to his son, Bill Jr., a long-time Remington executive who is also now deceased, Foster kept a notebook in which he recorded his shots at grouse in skeet terms; for example, a straightaway chance would be a station seven low house, a hard-crosser, a station four high house, etc.
Mention of Foster’s retirement (such as it was; if anything, he was busier writing and painting than ever) brings up another interesting connection. Circa 1933, he hired a green, but eager 23-year-old, a man who had some meager newspaper experience, to be his editorial assistant. The youngster soon proved his worth, though, and in 1935 he was promoted to managing editor (National Sportsman and Hunting and Fishing had by then been combined into a single magazine).
When Foster threw in the towel a year later — presumably to work on his book and devote more time to painting — the kid became top dog. His name? H. G. Tapply, “Tap” Tapply to millions who faithfully read his long-running “Tap’s Tips” column in Field & Stream.
Now 87, Tap Tapply has fond memories of the days he spent in Foster’s company, hunting, fishing, shooting skeet, even digging for Indian artifacts. An oil painting Foster did of a Royal Coachman dry fly hangs in his home.
“One day when we were fishing the Sudbury River in Massachusetts,” Tapply recalls, “he said, ‘Tap, that’s the sort of place Indians would have camped. Let’s stop and dig.’ We stopped and dug and, sure enough, six or eight inches down we found some flakes chipped off from arrowheads. It pleased him more than the fish we caught.”
Tapply is also on record to the effect that Foster’s well-known affinity for the 28-gauge — “Light, but spiteful’ he called it — was at least partially due to a flinch he developed later in life. Regardless, he was acknowledged by everyone who gunned with him to be a deadly shot — although, as you might expect, lovely dog work was far more important to him than birds in the bag. It’s worth noting, too, that Foster’s preferred 28-gauge load held a bare 5/8-ounces of shot, not the 3/4-ounce load common today. For the record, Parker was his gunmaker of choice.
From “New England Grouse Shooting”
While grouse hunting in the stone-fenced, apple-treed coverts of New England was clearly the sport dearest to his heart, Foster enjoyed a rich, well-rounded shooting life. He gunned bobwhites in the piney woods of Southland, and journeyed to the Canadian prairies in search of sharptails and Hungarian partridge. He was also an avid waterfowler who crafted his own duck skiffs and decoys (one of his Maine friends was master decoy-carver George Soule). As his son wrote in the Foreword to the 1983 edition of New England Grouse Shooting, “Whether he was painting a picture, writing a book, or carving a decoy, he tried to show and describe things as they were — in detail, but without frills and embellishments.”
At the risk of using a hackneyed phrase, Bill Foster was, from head-to-toe, a class act. He was enormously talented, yet unfailingly modest, gracious, and generous — down-to-earth, in other words. He had the rare ability to move easily in any company, from prissy Boston Brahmins and high-powered captains of industry, to rough-and-tumble backwoodsmen and leather-hided professional handlers. His wit sparkled, too. As Bob Wehle puts it, “He did everything with style.”
In ways large and small, Foster’s influence continues to be felt. The examples are endless: the Elhew strain, the New England Standard, the hold that his great book continues to have on the popular imagination, the timeless appeal of his art, the devotion to the highest ideals of sportsmanship that rubbed off on everyone who came in contact with him. Perhaps Earl Crangle says it best: “There was never anyone who could fill his shoes.”
Thanks to Art Wheaton for providing the photo of Bill Foster and the two pointers. See his story about Foster published in The Ruffed Grouse Society, 2010: William Harnden Foster (1886 – 1941) A True Sporting Artist
From “New England Grouse Shooting”
Please visit the Art Gallery for more of William Harnden Foster’s work.