Located at the epicenter of Virginia's horse county in Middleburg, the National Sporting Library and Museum was a complete revelation to me. Before I visited, I pictured a quaint little space with fox hunting scenes and ducks on the wall. Though I probably should have known better, given Middleburg's tony reputation, nothing prepared me for the gem of an institution that I found set on the crest of a hill just outside the town center.
I can perhaps be forgiven my ignorance because while the Library has been humming along nicely since 1954, the museum’s existence is actually quite recent, its seeds planted in 2002 when Felicia Warburg Rogan, former owner of Oakencroft Vineyard and Winery in Charlottesville donated 16 major works from her important British sporting art collection. With this significant keystone in place, the library expanded its mission to include art and The Felicia Warburg Rogan Sporting Art Initiative was established to encourage other donations.
By 2008, so many had been received that a proper museum space had to be created. The historic Vine Hill, built in 1804 (which had housed the library) was duly renovated, tripling in size with up-to-the-minute museum technologies incorporated. Considerable effort was made to preserve the original character, retaining fireplaces, floors, mantles, and other ornamentation so that the resulting gallery spaces have a suitably elegant old-world feel.
Back in 1999, an English style carriage house had been built next to Vine Hill for the library's collection of more than 24,000 volumes including a first edition (1653) of Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler."
Hunting, racing and fishing are all represented in the museum’s collection that ranges in scope from contemporary artist, Nic Fiddian-Green’s striking monumental bronze horse head, “Still Water” (2011) that graces the entrance foyer to the charming Victorian genre scene, “Foxhounds and Terrier in a Stable Interior” (1878) by John Emms. The NSLM also presents an ongoing schedule of revolving exhibitions that feature animal and sporting art.
A loan exhibition of approximately 40 American and British paintings and sculpture drawn from museum and private collections, “Angling in the Western World” (September 28, 2013 – March 14, 2014) focuses on the subject of fishing as it has been pursued by the gentry down through the ages using a hook and line. John Bucknell Russell’s beautifully painted “Day’s Catch” (1864), an arrangement of three trout on a leafy riverbank is both still life and landscape with a little genre scene thrown in. The painting not only conveys the silvery suppleness of the freshly caught fish with incredible veracity, but also describes a pastoral setting that is likely Scotland. In the upper right, you can see the fisherman casting his line. John Frederick Lewis’s “Sportsman Fishing Beside a Highland Stream” is a portrait of the gillie (sporting attendant) of Sir Edwin Landseer, the famous 19th century British sporting artist who was Lewis's friend and angling buddy. The figure’s casual stance and the timelessness of his garb adds a sense of immediacy to a work that was painted in 1829. Set before the shadow of deep woods and beside the rushing stream, the painting evokes the angler’s experience. Looking at this, one has the realization that the pastime of angling has changed very little over time.
Opening October 12th, “Contemporary Artist-Naturalists: Robin Hill & Meg Page” features two painters of enormous flair and sensitivity. The Australian born Hill combines incredibly detailed representations of birds with a contemporary approach to composition. Influenced by Japanese screens, much of the space which Hill's birds occupy is spare, sometimes gilded or colored, but otherwise unadorned. This approach not only adds an interesting tension between the representational and abstract, it also leaves room for the viewer's imagination to come into play.
Page's luminous watercolors are built up with layer upon layer of pigment. Precisely rendered, the works range from the fanciful glistening blue crab on a map of the Chesapeake to her handsome Albrecht Dürer-like hare on its velvety perch of moss. Page depicts hard crustacean shell and downy fur with equal facility. A native of Maryland, Page's work has been featured in “Town and Country,” “Southern Living” and “Southern Accents.”
Like Audubon before them, Hill and Page strive to capture their subjects in their natural surroundings, but as NSLM curator, Claudia Pfeiffer points out these 21st century artists face new challenges for “unlike their predecessors, who oftentimes found themselves cataloguing new species in a lush, abundant, and untouched environment, Hill and Page face the modern issue of documenting and preserving wildlife in a diminishing habitat.” Through February 25, 2014.
Over in the library, “Teaming with Nature” (October 8, 2012 - January 30, 2014), curated by Maureen Gustafson, will feature James Prosek’s watercolors executed for his book “Trout of the World,” (2013), an expanded version of a book Prosek wrote when he was just 19 on North American trout. Passionate about his subject, Prosek's glorious watercolors capture the stunning beauty of this remarkable genus in all it's eye-popping color and surface pattern.Yes, they are accurate representations of the fish, but they are so much more, elevated by his brush to a poetic level of beauty.
"Our goal is to highlight the rich artistic heritage of sporting pursuits,” says Pfeiffer, “not just within the genre of ‘sporting art,’ but in the broader art-historical context. Going forward, we will continue to develop exhibits delving more fully into the art and culture of equestrian, angling and field sports.” If the last two years are any indication, with such stellar shows as the museum's inaugural exhibition in 2011: “Afield in America: 400 Years of Animal & Sporting Art” and the recent “Munnings: Out in the Open,” we have much to look forward to.