The Mystery of the Swan

Swan decoy, James T. Holly (1855-1935), Havre de Grace, Maryland, or Samuel T. Barnes (1857-1926), Havre de Grace, Maryland.
Collection of Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

The maker of this swan decoy, which was produced as a “confidence bird” meant to add realistic variety to a gunner’s rig, has been disputed for years. Attributed to a Havre de Grace carver, Samuel T Barnes, some experts have argued it far more strongly resembles the work of Barnes’ contemporary, James T. Holly. Regardless of the maker, its voluptuous form, sinuous neck, and graceful proportions create a decoy that beautifully marries art, craft, and the Chesapeake environment. The persistent mystery of its maker is just another part of its appeal.

Newsprint transfer on swan decoy’s paint.

Up close, the excellence of the decoy’s carving is evident. What is also evident is some blueish typeface- the remnant of a hasty wrapping job in newspaper.S ince the original finish or patina of a decoy is part of its value, removing the imprint would risk ruining the swan’s paint. But the transferred ink is not just a mar on a perfect finish. Rather, it is an interesting piece of the swan’s long provenance. And for years, this ink stain has been another part of the Barners/ Holly swan’s mystery. Since it is illegible- the copy transferred in a mirror image-  our curator at CBMM has never been able to reading the text in the ink imprint.

The swan ink imprint, reversed.

Thanks to the miracle of Photoshop, the image is able to be reversed to make it legible. There are references to war, but the headline refers to a “Speaker Bankhead”. A quick google search shows that this is House of Representatives Speaker Bankhead, who held the office from 1936 until 1940. Bankhead, the father of famous actress Tallulah Bankhead, was in Washington during the tumultuous years of the New Deal, just before the US entered World War II.

Speaker Bankhead (right) in 1937 smoking a pipe with a Minnesotan representative. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The ghost left behind the newsprint helps put our swan decoy into context on a world stage. In a country crawling from the economic pit of the Great Depression, riddled with anxieties about war, a luminous swan decoy was wrapped in newsprint for protection somewhere in the Chesapeake. Imprinted forever, this moment in time would become part of the swan’s permanent history to carry forward.  But with the help of modern technology, its unlocked code and the story behind it can be shared with the visitors who linger over the swan’s elegant form. Behind glass, its neck is a question mark, finally answered.

CBMM Director of Education Kate Livie and the decoded Barnes/ Holly swan.