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Artist Edwin Megargee

From the archives of The Canine Chronicle

By Amy Fernandez

Edwin Megargee ranks among the twentieth century’s most prolific and versatile artists. He was also among the lucky few to reap substantial financial rewards and public acclaim during his lifetime. Good fortune is more than a matter of luck. Being in the right place at the right time requires good intuition. Capitalizing on the resulting opportunities requires skill and dedication. He mastered challenging mediums like ink, watercolor, and oil to printmaking and sculpture, and his prodigious output spanned decades. He created classic portraits, as well as defining images of popular culture like the Greyhound Bus logo. However, he is best remembered for his remarkable portrayals of purebred dogs. Megargee’s art celebrates the quality and functionality of fine, purebred animals. “Indeed he has done so many horses of noble lineage, dogs of high degree, and other blooded livestock, that he can truly be called the apostle of purebreds,” said Charles Long in his AKC Gazette profile of the artist in Dec. 1934. “He likes honesty, and especially does he like it in his subjects. He wants them to be splendid examples of what they are supposed to be.” Megargee admired his subjects, but he resisted any temptation to romanticize them. He was an outspoken critic of the sentimentality that characterized Victorian animal art. That doesn’t imply that his work lacked sensitivity, or failed to convey personality and expression.

Charles Long met the artist while searching for a Scottie pup during Megargee’s term as president of the Scottish Terrier Club of America. He got a little more than he bargained for when he accepted Megargee’s invitation to visit. Long was treated to an impromptu lecture on form and function, which Megargee enthusiastically illustrated by pulling out a seeming endless succession of prints, drawings and portraits to emphasize various points. “I learned more of domestic animals with blueblooded lineage than I had ever imagined. Megargee believes that by pure bloodlines alone can domestic animals be brought near that goal of perfection to which all breeders aspire.” If he didn’t know it before their meeting, Long quickly concluded that Megargee was the real deal. “Possibly the real reason why Megargee is an animal painter is because he knows his animals. He rides horses, breeds Scottish Terriers, shoots over Pointers and Setters, bred blooded livestock, has gone after big game in Canada, and upland birds all over this country.” He understood and appreciated animals, and that’s exactly what he tried to convey through his work. Piece by piece, he shows his audience what makes a fine animal, and taught them to admire the sum total of those parts.

Although Megargee commenced his career in the 1920s, he was the antithesis of the era’s typical avant-garde, Greenwich Village Bohemian artist. According to Long, Megargee’s immaculate grooming and low-key style made him look more like a banker or lawyer. He arrived at his clients’ homes in a crisply tailored three-piece suit. His no-nonsense appearance was offset by his easy familiarity with wealthy patrons and their often temperamental animals. “Getting dogs to pose in their homes, where I am usually called on to do their portraits, often requires considerable diplomacy, particularly where the owner is inclined to spoil his or her pet.” Unlike many artists, Megargee never relied on photos. He worked strictly from life and a series of accurate sketches provided his reference material for a job. Needless to say, this required expert draftsmanship. “Early in my career I determined to portray animals as they actually are and I studied the anatomy and structure of birds and animals until I could have articulated the skeleton of anything from a hen to a horse.” It also required the intuitive rapport to effectively convince his subjects to cooperate while he worked.

According to legend, Megargee possessed a miraculous ability to calm his subjects for lengthy sessions of posing. “All animals have a sort of sixth sense in selecting people in whom to place their confidence,” said Long. “I have never known a horse or a dog that would not obey his slightest command. I have never known one that would not give him complete and perfect devotion. After all, this may be the best measure of his character, both as a man and as an artist.” Long got a personal glimpse of Megaree’s working method when he arrived at his studio to conduct an interview. “One afternoon I stood before the door of his studio on Union Square and became somewhat intrigued by the sound of a scuffle and voices, one of which I recognized as Megargee’s. ‘Keep his head up. Hold it’ I heard him say. Then a strange voice, ‘Keep still you son of a sea cook.’ I opened the door. Megargee was at his easel, while on the floor a gentleman of dignified appearance, but somewhat perturbed, held between his knees the liveliest specimen of Scottish Terrier I have ever seen. It is a fixed rule in animal portraiture that the model should have an alert expression. This model, which turned out to be a famous Scottie champion, more than followed the rule. Finally, Megargee left his easel, approached the rambunctious Scottie, handled him; spoke to him for a moment, and instantly the dog froze in a beautiful pose, a champion, every inch of him. ‘Dogs,’ said Megargee in explanation, ‘respond to every intonation of their master’s voice, every mood.’”

That’s right, but it wasn’t the whole story. The reality was a little different, although it certainly reflected his uncanny understanding of animal behavior. The attentive Megargee knew that “Dogs invariably assume only four or five different poses.” He would spend an afternoon casually observing his potential subject at home, while chatting with the client and doodling on his sketchpad. Unknown to the owners, Megargee was carefully recording the subject’s habitual gestures and expressions. “The pose it assumes most often will be the one I carry out. This method makes me something of a gambler but it gets results.” Working from life has definite advantages. It’s certainly the best way to accurately capture essential components like mood, expression, and color. But even with a human subject, it is challenging. Wrestling with a recalcitrant Scottie wasn’t the only complication Megargee encountered.

“I have had some pretty close shaves. Bulls, of course, are the most dangerous.” Early in his career, Megargee arrived at a fairground to sketch his intended subject, a prize bull that had just won a championship. “The show had been held in a tent, which was now deserted except for the proud owner, the bull, some attendants, and myself.” He described the bull as “not the easiest to handle.” Several attendants held it in place and a leather mask covered its eyes. “Having finished my sketch of the animal’s body I asked if the mask could not be removed while I sketched his head. Obligingly, the owner removed the mask, and from then on, things began to happen.” In less than a minute, the bull broke free, lowered his head and pawed the ground ready to charge. Everyone ran for cover except Megargee, who was too engrossed in his work to notice this impending disaster. A split second later the bull charged through a tier of benches demolishing them “like they were paper. Then it tore through the side of the tent and ran full tilt into a stone wall where it was knocked out by its own fury. Whether in supreme disgust at my portrait, I do not know, but the charge had been in the opposite direction, proving in at least one case, criticism of my art was highly beneficial. Had that bull charged at me, my aspirations for an artistic career would have ended abruptly.”

These aspirations traced back to his childhood. Born in 1883, Sylvester Edwin Megargee Jr. was the oldest of eleven children. He enjoyed a privileged childhood at his family’s country home outside of Philadelphia. “As far back as I can remember, I used to lie on my stomach and draw pictures of animals …I drew every breed of animal on the place, and there were many.” Best remembered among his numerous childhood pets was his first, and most beloved dog, Diggie, a rough-coated terrier. Diggie customarily slept at his bedside, and once saved his life by waking him when a kerosene lamp had fallen and set fire to the bed. One month later Diggie was killed by a burglar who attempted to rob their house. “I think every small boy tries to draw dogs and cats because these are the creatures closest to his heart.” His mother was responsible for encouraging his early interests in art. Four of the 11 Megargee siblings ultimately became professional artists, even though Megargee’s father, a successful attorney, wanted his children to choose more practical professions that would guarantee financial security.

Megargee eventually convinced his father that he could make a go of it as an artist, and was sent to study art at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. Four years later he began his career like many artists, doing low paying commercial work. His first job, doing illustrations for daily newspapers, honed his ability to work quickly and accurately, capture essential details of a scene, and tell his story simply and clearly. It also fostered his habit of placing his subjects into realistic settings, which became a hallmark of his dog paintings. Throughout his life, Megargee derived a major part of his income from book illustration, beginning 1912 when he illustrated a reference book on domestic fowl for The Scranton International Textbook Company. The resulting exposure led to his first portrait commissions of prize winning livestock, including a champion Chester White pig.

In 1919, Megargee and his sister Mildred moved to New York, an essential step for any serious artist hoping to break into the big leagues. They rented a studio in Union Square and eked out a precarious living on their weekly earnings. He admits that they often survived a weekend on canned beans when a desperately needed $5 check failed to arrive by Friday. During these years Megargee also began studying at New York’s famed Art Students League. The school opened in 1875, and moved to its present 57th Street location in 1892. By 1919 it already had a formidable reputation in the art world. Thomas Hart Benton, Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler, Georgia O’Keeffe, Barnett Newman, Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer, Man Ray, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, Reginald Marsh, Romare Bearden, Red Grooms, Roy Lichtenstein, and Mark Rothko are just a few of the important 20th century artists associated with the League. Modeled on the 19th Century French atelier system, its open enrollment policy allowed anyone to sign up for classes and study with the instructors of their choice. Depending on their budget, students paid by the class, week, or the month. Then as now, three hour life drawing classes were the mainstay of the League’s programs, although back then, men and women attended separate classes.

The League’s heavy emphasis on drawing and anatomy had an unmistakable influence on his evolving personal style. His main instructors were Kenyon Cox and Vincent du Mond, who taught at the League for 60 years. Du Mond’s clean, controlled modeling technique and academic approach to color mixing became known as The Prismatic Palette. The method continued to be taught at the League long after his death, and it can be seen in Megargee’s work. In contrast to the modernist styles overtaking the art world in the 1920s, Cox championed a traditional academic art education and taught his students to appreciate representational figurative art. All of these influences can be detected in the hallmarks of Megargee’s style; anatomically precise drawing, solidly painted, simple compositions, side lighting, and understated realistic backgrounds.

Another crucial element entered his life during this time, Scottish Terriers. One of his famous quotes makes it easy to understand his attraction to the breed, “blood will tell….Well bred dogs will give their all of affection and loyalty in the face of death itself. To me a purebred animal seems proud of its lineage. I have never known a pedigreed dog to be a snake or a coward when put to the test…” He began breeding and showing Scotties in partnership with the artist Marguerite Kirmse (1885-1954) under her Tobermory prefix. Born in Bournemouth, England in 1885, Kirmse studied music and art in England, before moving to America to start her artistic career. She worked in pencil, pastel, oil and bronze. By the time she met Megargee, she had an impressive reputation and steady demand for her work, especially her Scottish Terrier etchings. In 1924, she married George W. Cole and their Arcady Farm country home in Bridgewater, Connecticut became the site of Tobermory kennel, housing 50 to 60 Gundogs, Airedales, Irish, and of course, Scotties.

The 1930s are rightfully labeled the Golden Age of the Scottie. Within a decade, the breed skyrocketed from obscurity to rank third in AKC popularity. Especially on the East Coast, the Scottie fancy became a mecca for socialites, celebrities and business tycoons. For artists like Megargee and Kirmse, seeking to establish a market for their work and attract lucrative commissions, this was definitely the right time to be involved with this breed. The popular mystery writer Willard Huntington Wright, better known by his pen name  S.S. Van Dine, immortalized this fascinating era of Scottie history in his popular detective novels. He was the model for his central character, the cultured, intellectual, art and dog loving amateur sleuth, Philo Vance. A Harvard graduate who studied art in Munich and Paris, Wright was a versatile scholar. The convoluted plotlines of his novels are packed with arcane facts about art, literature, history, science, criminology, medicine, and the Scottie world of the 1930s. The formula was a hit, and S.S. Van Dine authored one blockbuster after another. Unfortunately, his bipolar personality, wealth, and troublesome cocaine addiction combined to fuel a tendency to excess. In 1931, he established Sporran Kennel in New Jersey where he quickly accumulated over 100 Scotties, but managed to breed only one champion. Although this was a short-lived, disastrous venture, his import Ch. Heather Reveller had a tremendous impact on Scottie development in America.

During these years he also wrote The Kennel Murder Case which freely exploited the Scottie’s lofty position in popular culture. The plot featured several breed notables which underscored and bolstered their celebrity status. While tracking his murderer, Vance visits both Kirmse and Megargee. “So we went south to Union Square to call on Mr. Megargee who was in his studio working on a large canvas of twelve of the famous Tapscot Cairn champions.” Getting no leads there, Vance heads over to “the eastside winter studio of Mrs. Marguerite Kirmse Cole. Mr. and Mrs. Cole, owners of the Tobermory Kennels, greeted us graciously. Vance owned three of Marguerite Kirmse’s Scottie etchings.”

Cole eventually became president of the Scottish Terrier Club of America, as did Megargee, who also served on the board, and wrote the Scottish Terrier column for the AKC Gazette. This marked the start of his close association with AKC. In 1926, he was appointed to the New York trial board; he became an AKC Director in 1928, and was approved to judge all Sporting and Terrier breeds in 1930. In 1934, he became co-chair of the AKC’s library committee and designed the official AKC bookplate. His subject for this highlights his instinctive sense of timing. Through their mutual interest in dogs and AKC activities, Megargee also became acquainted with Charles Topping Inglee during these years. Today, Inglee is known as the father of the modern Gordon Setter in America. Born in Brooklyn, 1877, he began showing Gundogs in 1895, and earned a respectable reputation in English Setters by the 1920s. He also earned a fortune as a real estate speculator, and subsequently lost most of it in the 1929 crash. Luckily, before that happened, he invested quite a bit of it in his project to revive the Gordon Setter in America. He imported the best British and Scandinavian lines to establish his Inglehurst bloodline, named for the 129 acre farm he purchased in Greenbrook Township, New Jersey. His kennel provided foundation stock for many important breeding programs and produced numerous bench and field winners including Ch. Inglehurst Gilette who retired as the Whitehouse pet of Herbert Hoover. Inglee also founded the Gordon Setter Club of America in 1924, became first vice president of AKC in 1932, and was appointed AKC’s eighth president five months later. He was obviously someone worth knowing, and Megargee certainly benefitted from the friendship. Most importantly, he met Inglee’s daughter Jean, who was then enjoying the typical single life of a young girl in New York. She worked as an editor for AKC, showed Cairns, and personified the dancing, drinking, roaring ‘20s lifestyle. She was a stark contrast to the staid, teetotaler Megagee who, at 52, was twice her age. But as they say, opposites attract. They married in 1935, set up house at Inglehurst’s caretaker’s cottage, and their son Ned was born two years later.

Although he faced the prospect of supporting a family in the midst of the Depression, Megargee’s career was in high gear, which confirms the level of popularity he had achieved by then. His illustrations appeared regularly in national publications like Country Life, Hunting and Fishing and Field and Stream. In response to the demand for his work Field and Stream published a collectible series of Megargee paintings of sport hunting called Shooting Prints. Derrydale Press also published a hugely popular series of Megargee Sporting dog prints during these years. This represented a small part of his commercial illustration work, which neatly dovetailed with the rise of America’s advertising industry. The Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of standardized mass production of consumer goods. National advertising of branded goods really started gaining traction after WWI, and advertising volume in America grew from $200 million in 1880 to almost $3 billion in 1920. Advertising agencies, formerly in the business of selling space in local newspapers and periodicals, began organizing campaign strategies and designing copy in house – and they scrambled for artists to provide illustrations. Megargee caught the wave. His crisp, clean style was ideal for reproduction, and he was hired to paint countless advertisements.

He was also in constant demand as a portrait artist. Possibly, his most famous commission was the 1934 Kentucky Derby winner and American Hall of Fame Champion, Cavalcade. Cavalcade’s owner, Isabel Dodge Sloane, was an heir to the Dodge Motors fortune. She not only had the means to purchase the best animals, she knew quality, and earned a formidable reputation in Gundogs and Thoroughbreds. Winners from her famed Brookmeade Stable captured the American Grand National, the Preakness, Belmont and the Derby. Cavalcade descended from the 1893 English Triple Crown champion Isinglass. For Megargee this must have been an ideal commission, and we can only imagine the conversations that went on during this production. His portrait of Cavalcade was reproduced on the cover of the 1935 Derby Program. He also immortalized Calumet Farm’s 1949 Derby winner Ponder, a horse that exemplified Megargee’s interpretation of a quality purebred. Ponder was sired by the 1944 Derby winner, Pensive, and later produced Needles, winner of the 1956 Kentucky Derby. Pensive, Ponder, and Needles represent the second of only two families that produced consecutive generations of Derby winners.

Of course, most of his portrait work came via the dog world’s major players who commissioned him to paint their top winners. His pictures are a reminder of the bygone elegance and glamour that once characterized this sport. Mr. and Mrs. Frances V. Crane commissioned Megargee to paint several of their Great Pyrennes imports in the late ‘30s, including International Champions Estat and Estagel Argeles, Marsous and Ch Urdos de Soum. The Crane’s Basquaerie breeding program ultimately produced over 150 champions. They were also responsible for establishing the breed in America, and this effort included advertising the breed – and Megargee’s portraits – to the hilt.

He also painted International Champion Nunsoe Duc de la Terrace for Mrs. Sherman Hoyt’s Blakeen Kennel. Arguably, the breed’s most famous representative, The Duc was an impressive white Standard bred by Emile Warney at La Terrace Kennels in Switzerland, out of Labory stock. He became a top winner in Europe before going to Jane Lane’s Nunsoe Kennel in England where he produced several important dogs and earned his English championship. In 1934, The Duc was purchased by Mrs. Whitney Blake as a gift for her daughter, Hayes Blake Hoyt, and his name got a bit longer with the addition of her Blakeen suffix. Shown in this country 18 times, he was undefeated, winning 16 groups and nine BIS, including Westminster 1935. His owner/ handler Hayes Blake Hoyt also became the first woman to handle a dog to this honor. The sensational win triggered a resurgence of Poodle popularity in America that has never waned. Megargee depicted several of The Duc’s top winning sons and daughters for Blakeen, and also managed to interest Mrs. Hoyt in Gordons. She subsequently acquired several dogs from Inglee and founded a major breeding program.

Possibly his most high profile job for Hoyt was a 1940 commission to portray her newest acquisitions, the magnificent Afghan Hound, Ch. Rudiki of Pride’s Hill, a grandson of Ch. Sirdar of Ghanzi, purchased from Shaw McKean. By then, Hoyt, Megargee and Rudiki were all magnets for public fascination. The combination was irresistible and Life dispatched a writer and photographer to capture the sittings for a major feature. It was also covered by the AKC Gazette, and they extolled “The beauty of coat and form that characterize Reddy may be seen in the splendid painting by Edwin Megargee.” For a few years, Blakeen campaigned equal numbers of Afghans and Poodles, and Rudiki ultimately earned 15 BIS,  27 Best American Bred in Show, 40 Groups, and 77 Breed wins. After Hoyt’s Afghan kennel was disbanded in 1941, Rudiki went on to make records for Marion Foster Florsheim’s Five Mile Kennel in Connecticut. His image was also recycled to sell dog food and Calvert whiskey, and he joined several other Megargee purebreds for the Fleishman’s campaign to promote “A Pedigreed Gin for Prize-Winning Drinks.” Like any sensible artist, Megargee became proficient at recycling his work for maximum profit and publicity. His biggest coup came via another portrait commission to paint a pair of the Rowanoak Bedlingtons, Ch. Tarragona of Rowanoaks and Ch. Lancelot of Rowanoaks owned by Col. P.V.G. Mitchell and his daughter Constance Willemsen.

Rowanoak stock later produced Ch. Rock Ridge Night Rocket, campaigned by William Rockefeller’s Rock Ridge kennel to Best at Westminster in 1948. Col. Mitchell was also vice president of the United States Lines. In the late ‘30s they invested about 12 million to build the S.S. America, the equivalent of about $160 million today.  Launched with great fanfare in 1940, this world class ocean liner was meant to be the last word in luxury travel, outfitted with every possible amenity including a state of the art kennel. “With what amounts to a stroke of genius, the Unites States Lines has added a unique touch to all this perfection by commissioning Edwin Megargee, noted painter, to do head studies of famous champions, each representing a popular breed, to adorn the doors of each of the 24 large private compartments that house the travelers. Painted on a deep sky blue background on nine inch medallions these magnificent heads make a handsome and appropriate decoration that will make a strong appeal to dog lovers.” (AKC Gazette September, 1940) Megargee executed two versions of each painting, one for the S.S. America, and one for the owner of the dog. Unfortunately, the current whereabouts of most of these paintings remains a mystery, and the only record of them is a set of photos at AKC’s New York office.

Megargee also illustrated several breed standards, which he called blueprints. Although it paid less much less, he took these jobs more seriously than any others.  As he explained in the STCA yearbook, “Breed standards are not arbitrary requirements formulated to satisfy the whims of fashion. They are written to preserve and perfect a particular type of dog for a very definite purpose. There are definite reasons for every line of the standard.” Many of these simple, clear line drawings are still in use. Megargee’s breed standard illustrations were also published in The Complete Collie in 1945, and The Complete Dachshund in 1947.

Over the course of his career he illustrated over twenty books, and authored two. Dogs, Written and Illustrated by Edwin Megargee was published in 1942. The Dog Dictionary, his illustrated overview of the dog world was released in 1954. In 1945, he provided illustrations for Margaret Cabell Self’s, Treasury of Horse Stories, William Brown’s Retriever Gun Dogs, and Freeman Lloyd’s Gun Dogs at Work. Some of his best remembered illustrations appeared in Eugene Connett’s 1948 American Sporting Dogs, and Julie Campbell Tatham’s 1952 children’s book, The Mongrel of Merryway Farm. His productivity was truly amazing. Possibly, he was motivated by the promise made his father, and was constantly compelled to prove that he really could pull off a successful career in this field. Maybe he was spurred on by recollections of those lean times when he first arrived in New York with his sister, and they survived on canned beans in a cold water flat. Either way, his artistic legacy is a priceless record of breed evolution, type, grooming, and presentation.

Megargee’s final project was an updated edition of The National Geographic Society’s bestseller, The National Geographic Book of Dogs. Originally published in 1919, Luis Agassiz Fuertes contributed the first series of illustrations depicting breeds in scenes that highlighted their heritage and working role. A revised edition, released in 1927 was an equally hot seller. In 1958, National Geographic decided to release a new version, with completely new text by the eminent dog experts Arthur Frederic Jones and Freeman Lloyd, and photos by the acclaimed photographer Walter Chandoha. This 431 page book featured detailed introductory chapters on each group, along with an assortment of fascinating articles on topics like the St. Bernard Hospice, police and military dog training programs, hunting with bird dogs, and sled dogs. In other words, it was a far cry from the bland, generic all breed guides of today. It genuinely attempted to educate readers about the fine points of type and the correlation between form and function. It had a tremendous impact on an entire generation of dog fanciers growing up in 1960’s.

Walter Weber Herbert Miner and Megargee were brought onboard to create 342 illustrations, including a color plate depicting each breed. Megargee was assigned the Hound and Toy breeds. His dynamic Hound paintings eloquently captured each breed’s defining traits more adeptly than any standard, and readers instantly understood what that breed was about. The Toy breed section, entitled Pets of Kings and Commoners, was written by Freeman Lloyd. Unfortunately, Megargee died before he could complete these paintings. We can only speculate on the dramatic impact they would have brought to Lloyd’s accurate, fascinating text.

Megargee’s work is especially valid in today’s climate of animal rights politics. Ongoing media efforts have blurred the line between humans and animals, and drastically distorted our ability to appreciate dogs for what they are. Megargee’s personal mission provides a refreshing reminder to examine and celebrate quality breeding without compromise.

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  • November 2020