Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bingham's Trappers' Return: A Sentimental Journey

In 1851, six years after he painted Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, Bingham painted The Trappers' Return, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  I hadn't known about this painting until my friend The Old Gunkie pointed it out to me.  Although he prefers it to the earlier painting, to me it's primarily interesting as a sentimental example of diminished complexity.

File:George Caleb Bingham - The Trappers' Return.jpg

The composition is obviously taken from the earlier painting, but with significant omissions.  The snags are missing (the one at the downstream end of the woods may be a snag, or it may be a tree fallen from the forest).  The dead duck is gone, as are the hunting bag and rifle case.  The bear cub now has appropriately rounded ears but it is in a different position, standing upright rather than looking down its muzzle. The baggage between the bear cub and the boy has disappeared.

Nor are these changes all, for Bingham reworked what he did retain from the earlier painting.  The background of woods, cliffs, and shore is different.  The father is given a different facial expression, as is the boy.  Now, the two seem to be looking at the beholder, observers in their own turn of the audience standing where we are.

Still smoking a pipe, the fur trapper/trader now has a different cap and looks more benign, quite altered from Bingham's earlier painting and his even earlier sketch.

The boy is more changed from the earlier painting, but in a way that looks back to another of Bingham's earlier drawings.  The earlier drawing has no shooting bag or case for the rifle, as well as no duck.  If the painting of Fur Traders Descending the Missouri shows the son as bemused, this drawing, like The Trappers' Return, shows the son as slightly amused, focusing directly on the beholder.

Trying to figure out why I don't care for this version nearly as much as the earlier one, I eventually decided that this one has a flattened quality to it.  Its diminished complexity makes it more like a calendar illustration than a painting.  There's interesting light, yes; there's an interesting composition, yes; but there's no life in it.  The ripples beyond the canoe seem unimportant, with the result that even while the painting represents movement, it seems static.  All is calm as we gaze at a nostalgic scene from earlier days.  In short, the past has become a version of pastoral, and their journey has become sentimental.  It's as if Bingham painted The Trappers' Return with one hand tied behind his back:

File:George Caleb Bingham - The Trappers' Return.jpg

Monday, December 23, 2013

Reading Bingham's Painting, "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri"

Doing some genealogical research on my father's side of the family has led me to see this well-known painting in a new way.  My middle name, Hutchison, comes from Nathaniel Hutchison, MD, who left Armagh, Ireland, to settle in Franklin, MO, in the early 1820's.  Today, people refer to Old Franklin and New Franklin, a distinction that puzzled me until I found out that Franklin was devastated by one of the Missouri's frequent floods in the nineteenth century and completely destroyed by a flood in the twentieth century.  Rebuilt, New Franklin is some distance away.

One of Dr. Hutchison's children, Sarah Elizabeth, married George Caleb Bingham, who in 1845 painted Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  By the mid-1840's, the fur trade was in decline.  Not only were the beaver getting trapped out, but silk hats had become fashionable in the 1830's.  The subject matter of Bingham's painting has a certain nostalgic quality:  it portrays not what you would have seen on the river in 1845 but what you would have seen a decade or two before.

In Masterpieces of American Painting (1985), Leonard Everett Fisher comments that Bingham demonstrates an "absolute control over his ideals, subject and tools": "In this everyday scene, he not only managed to express the slow flow of the river, men and boat by the obvious horizontality and simplicity of subject, he actually slows it up even further by the vertical counter-pointings (as in the cat and paddle) and by their watery reflections; and by moving the subject in a right to left direction while we few the art from left to right, our natural reading habit--especially of horizontal matter such as letters and words.  In such a fixed geometry, Bingham envelops his canvas in an atmosphere of tonal laziness and communicates eternal drift" (p. 56).

The sun appears to be getting close to the horizon, outlining the three figures from the rear and casting long shadows that terminate beyond the picture's edge.  Like the sky, the water of the Missouri seems almost limpid, reflecting the maroon trousers and the striped blue and white shirt of the boy and the red and white shirt of his father.

Yet several details undercut the serenity of this peacefully balanced scene.  (The following details I have copied from the reproduction I purchased in the Metropolitan's Museum Shop, so the color values are not identical.)  One detail that undercuts the seemingly peaceful scene is the father's expression.  In contrast to the boy's bemused smile, the father glowers in our direction.

Another unsettling detail is the duck on the bale of furs.  Quite literally a dead duck, it is lying on its back to show it was shot squarely in its breast.  Indeed, the rifle can be seen tucked under the boy's near arm, together with his rifle case and decorated shooting bag.

The most disturbing element, however, is easily overlooked, and that can only have been deliberate on Bingham's part.  Bingham makes good use of triangular elements in his composition:  the broken one formed by the canoe, the boy, and his father is echoed in the smaller one of the bale of furs, the boy's back and head, and the interrupted line to the dead duck.  The three snags protruding through the surface at first glance appear to emphasize these triangles by containing the dugout canoe.

The downstream snag lies beyond the bow, nearly parallel to it.  The upstream one is farther away and neatly reverses the angle of the stern. The remaining snag, itself an even smaller triangle, is just upstream of the boy's head.  But then a closer look reveals yet another snag, one on the far side of the canoe and almost equidistant between the two figures.

Trying to understand why my ancestor Dr. Hutchison had decided to live in Franklin, I discovered two facts.  The first was that Franklin then was the jumping off point for the Santa Fe Trail and the Rocky Mountain fur trade.  The second, emphasized in every contemporary account I read, was that the Missouri River was notorious for its deadly snags and sandbars.  Reading about those hazards reminded me of a passage in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, and after some skimming I found it in Chapter IX, "Continued Perplexities."  In this chapter, Twain describes the almost paralytic terror he experienced the first time he was given the wheel of the steamboat.  He had to confess he was incapable of reading the water, and even the experienced pilot Mr. Bixby (who knew all too well about Twain's arrogant ignorance) could not tell him how to do it--only that he would learn how to do it in time.

Mr. Bixby was correct, Twain continues, for he eventually did learn how to read the river:  "The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book--a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. . . .  The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an italicized passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated.  It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot's eye."

This contrast between the faint dimple on the surface and its hidden and hideous significance is central, I would argue, to Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri.  It helps to account for the differences in expression between the boy and the father.  Almost too obviously, the boy is associated with innocence; the father, with experience.  As Twain declares, "In truth, the passenger who could not read this book [of the river] saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it, painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading matter."  To the untrained eye, Twain continues, the river presented "graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring."  That is what the eye of innocence sees and is charmed by--it is what the boy sees, and it is what critics like Fisher have described so eloquently as this painting's "atmosphere of tonal laziness" and "eternal drift."

But is that all we should see in Bingham's painting?  Surely not.  A closer, careful look will reveal that snags are everywhere.  For example, look beyond the bear cub in the bow:

In these terms, the snags enclosing the canoe suggests that the boy's carefree expression and his relaxed posture express an innocence close to foolhardiness  If his glowering father were not reading the river and guiding the canoe accordingly, not only would their furs be lost but they too would be as dead as that duck.  There's no question Bingham was aware of these dangers:  his brother had drowned in the Blackwater River, and his grandfather had drowned in the Missouri River.  The boy may be seeing all manner of pretty pictures, but what the father recognizes is altogether different. He has good reason to look grim.

Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is a wonderful example of a painting which rewards close observation.  I therefore can only disagree with John Francis McDermott, who in his magisterial George Caleb Bingham:  River Portraitist (1959) declares that this painting "'means' nothing:  it is only a record of life" (p. 189).  No:  Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is a record of life in the midst of potential death--and those snags are indeed threatening for those who do observe them.  Bingham has managed to have it both ways:  the painting represents a nostalgic look at a vanishing way of life, one bathed in an almost limpid light, yet, for those like Mark Twain who can read the river, it reminds us emphatically of the dangers lurking just below the surface.  It remains a masterpiece of American painting, but for reasons that art historians in their bemused innocence have missed altogether.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ken Waters' Notebook: A Review

Ken Waters needs no introduction to firearm enthusiasts because of his numerous contributions to Rifle and to Handloader magazines plus his reloading publications, Pet Loads.  Not only did he know an enormous amount, but he experimented indefatigably. It's more the pity, therefore, that Ken Waters' Notebook (Wolfe Publishing, 2006) does not serve his legacy well.

This volume has numerous faults, none of them attributable to Waters and all of them to Wolfe Publishing.  To start at the beginning, the title gives an altogether misleading idea of the book itself.   It's a collection of his correspondence, so why call it a notebook?  Something like Ken Waters:  "Best Wishes for Good Shooting" would have been more accurate, and Waters, as we all know, cared about accuracy.

Second, its principle of organization is chronological, starting with a letter dated July 13, 1968, and closing with one dated December 28, 1989.  Such an organization might be useful if in that interval Waters changed his mind about some topic, let's say undersize vs. oversize cast bullets in the .30-06.  But I'm pretty sure he doesn't.  What a chronological organization does do is create a hodge-podge of topics, all mixed up.  The book is divided into chapters, and these chapters list some--but not even all--of the topics covered, but that is it as far as organization goes.

Wait, you may be thinking, what about the index?  Index?  Wolfe Publishing apparently believed they didn't need no stinking index!  I could understand this if the collected letters were arranged differently:  by modern rifle calibers, say, then by obsolete ones, then by handgun topics, and then by whatever; within each category, the order could be from smallest caliber to largest.  Other arrangements might be even better.  Almost anything would be preferable to having to go through the book making notes of the pages on topics that you might want to refer to later.

So:  misleading title, lack of organization, no index--all negatives. Unfortunately, that is not all.  To me, the final straw is the duplication of letters.  You turn the page, wearily go through yet again some minor variation of Waters' customary apology for taking so long to respond (most of these could have been cut with no loss), only to find that you just read this same letter a few pages ago.  Check out pp. 107 & 109; 155 & 166; 156 & 167; 222 & 225.  This is simply inexcusable.  Ken Waters took pains to get it right.  This volume is sloppy; it doesn't remotely represent what Ken Waters stood for.

Is this book a hit or a miss?  No question:  at one time, Ken Waters was a competitive rifleman, and I can imagine his ghost in the target pit, vigorously waving Maggie's Drawers.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Decoding a 1916 SMLE Mark III* by BSA

As the late Charles Stratton observed, the owner of an SMLE is "confronted with a seemingly hopeless array of marks and models and markings and apparently endless varieties of configurations and conversions."  Trying to figure out what these marks meant on my Mark III*, I began to wish for a Secret Decoder Ring.  In this post, I shall try to illustrate the key markings on my SMLE that was made by Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) in 1916, comment on their implications, and list some reference works if you want to pursue this topic with an SMLE of your own.  I hasten to add that I am not remotely an expert, only someone who has tried to figure out the history of this one rifle.  If you know better, please don't hesitate to comment.

The place to start is the collar or socket joining the butt stock to the receiver.  The collar tells you where and when the rifle was manufactured.

Here you see the King's or Tudor Crown, the GR initials of the monarch, Georgius Rex, or King George V (1911-35), the manufacturer followed by the date, and the model or Mark.

Next might come the serial number (or, in the case of my rifle), the numbers (plural) of the rifle stamped on the right side of the receiver ring.  Ideally, the same serial number will be duplicated on the barrel and on the side of the bolt handle.  Matching numbers suggest--but do not prove--that headspace is correct.  If you plan to shoot the rifle, check out the headspace first.

The serial number on this rifle is M / 25105 (by convention, the slash is used to indicate a different line).  Stratton (see list of references at the end of this post) stated that everywhere but at Enfield a given range of numbers was limited to five digits (Enfield limited its range to only four digits), so that when 99,999 was reached, the next series would begin with the letter "A" through A 99,999, then "B" through B 99,999, and so on.  M and 25105 are repeated on the barrel and on the rear side of the bolt handle.   

If you look closely, you can just make out another number--2316--stamped on the receiver ring but with a line through it, canceling it.  The number appears nowhere else on the rifle, evidence perhaps that an older receiver and perhaps its barrel may have been converted or reconditioned as part of a new weapon in time of war.  One question is, Which war?  Is this a 1916 BSA Mark III* receiver originally numbered 2316?  The Mark III* was adopted on January 2, 1916.  This rifle's lack of a letter prefix would make it the 2,316th Mark III* made by BSA in 1916, preceding all the serially numbered ones with letter prefixes.  During WW I, E.G.B. Reynolds has pointed out, BSA was manufacturing about 10,000 rifles a week.  This low a serial number without a letter prefix would place its manufacture in the very first week after the Mark III* was adopted.

But what about the "M" letter and matching serial numbers?  The rifle's collar tell us that BSA made the rifle in 1916.  During WW I, however, BSA apparently did not use an "M" at all, so that rules out the "M / 25105" as BSA's original 1916 serial number.  No other arsenal's use of "M" corresponds to post WW I dates, according to Stratton's listing of prefixes used by the various small arms factories.  "M" was used by BSA as a serial number prefix in 1941 and 1942, so it seems likely BSA reconditioned this rifle for service in 1941 or 1942 and at that time gave it the new serial number M / 2515.

Just behind the back sight (or here, where it was), the barrel is stamped H.V. / S.C.

 According to Stratton, "H.V." stands for high velocity, a mark stamped on rifles that had had the rear sight altered for the Mark VII bullet with its faster 174 grain bullet.  The "S.C." stands for small cone:  the forcing cone was lengthened 0.02 inches at the same time to improve accuracy.  Stratton terms these stampings the second variation, found on later Mark III and Mark III* rifles.  This marking is therefore consistent with the 1916 date of manufacture.

As the hucksters used to say on early TV commercials, "But wait, there's more!"  Another mark is relevant here.  On top of the Knox-form (the flat on the barrel immediately ahead of the receiver) is a circle enclosing two overlapping "F's":

This mark indicates a part of this rifle's history between the two world wars.  When the Irish Free State was formed in 1922, most of its military equipment came from Great Britain, including Lee-Enfield rifles.  The National Army marked these rifles with an FF enclosed by a circle, signifying "Fianna Fail."  (Exactly when this practice began is less clear.)  "Fianna" alludes to an ancient and rather informal military organization that with a slight stretch of the imagination could be taken to correspond to the standing army of a modern country.  "Fail" means "destiny," as in one of the ancient names of Ireland, "Innisfail," the Isles of Destiny.  "Fianna Fail" thus signifies something on the order of the Fianna or National Army of Ireland.  (Post script 1/07/2015:  Thanks to Fritz's sticky on the Lee Enfield page at Gunboards, I now know FB 26 marks on the underside of the barrel and visible here just in front of the Knox-form denote the Firth Brown steel batch.)

So far, therefore, we have a Mark III* made by BSA in 1916 that became the property of the National Army of Ireland in or shortly after 1922.  But why then would BSA in 1941 or 1942 be reconditioning a rifle that had belonged to the Irish Free State?  My first thought was that this rifle had been reacquired by the Brits following the Battle of Dunkirk in WW II.  In May, 1940, the British Army had to abandon a great deal of equipment in what Churchill called "the miracle of Dunkirk," the evacuation of 338,226 British and French soldiers off the beaches by over 900 ships and boats.  The British army then had to obtain rifles wherever they could be found, including Ireland.

I felt rather pleased with this line of reasoning, but my pleasure was short-lived. The very next day, I noticed yet another set of markings on the left side of the Knox-form:

Reynolds identifies the number, '37, as the Date Stamp, indicating the year of government acceptance.  The Broad Arrow to its right indicates British government property.  It could have been applied in 1916, but what I take to be its original serial number (the canceled 2316) also has a Broad Arrow below it.  Here, the Broad Arrow's placement next to the number '37 suggests that this rifle came back into British service in 1937, three years before the Battle of Dunkirk.  It may or may not be coincidental that the Irish Free State had become Ireland in that same year.  In any case, the "M" series number on the bolt, barrel, and receiver suggests that BSA probably reconditioned this well-used rifle a few years later, in 1941 or 1942, stamping it with its final serial number, "M / 25105."

Useful References:

British Enfield Rifles.  NRA American Rifleman reprint, 2004.

De Haas, Frank and Wayne van Zwoll.  Bolt Action Rifles.  4th rev. ed.  Iola, WI: Krause
Publications, 2003.

Reynolds, E.G.B.  The Lee-Enfield Rifle.  London:  Herbert Jenkins, 1960.

Stratton, Charles R.  British Enfield Rifles, Vol. 1:  SMLE (No. 1) Rifles, Mark I and Mark
III.  2nd rev. ed.  Tustin, CA:  North Cape Publications, n. d.

_______________.  British Enfield Rifles, Vol. 2:  Lee-Enfield No. 4 and No 5 Rifles.  3rd
rev. ed. Tustin, CA:  North Cape Publications, 2008.

Web:  Gunboards' Lee Enfield page:  http://forums.gunboards.com/showthread.php?322796-Fritz-s-FF-marked-Enfield-sticky

Not consulted:

Skennerton, Ian. The Lee-Enfield:  A Century of Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield Rifles &
Carbines.  2007.