An Englishman is trying his hand at decoy-carving

March 10, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

London -- A small act of creation is taking place on David Patrick-Brown's work bench at the Country Living Fair.

His firm, patient hands shape a decoy duck from a block of blond wood. The bird is becoming so lifelike it seems almost ready to dip for food.

People long to touch his birds. The feathers he carves with small, heated blades invite stroking. Mr. Patrick-Brown says, "Go ahead. Touch."

He's an Englishman practicing an American folk art, a people's craft native to the Chesapeake Bay where almost legendary artisans raised skill to art.

He's one of the stars of this crafts fair, which is held under the wonderfully refurbished cast-iron Victorian arches of the old Agricultural Society Hall in Islington, a vivacious, cosmopolitan London borough.

Mr. Patrick-Brown is one of a dozen or so full-time, professional decoy carvers in Britain. A couple of hundred more Britons carve decoys as a hobby. That compares with hundreds and hundreds in America.

He admires and even reveres the great Chesapeake craftsmen like Lem and Steve Ward, the Crisfield, Md., barbers who pioneered decoy carving and achieved masterpieces of folk art.

But he's not uncritical. He likes a line carved cleaner than the ruffled, undulating American style.

"I sometimes feel the best American carvers can be truly exceptional," he says. "But some can be truly chocolate boxy."

Mr. Patrick-Brown was in the United States two years ago and he went to the Ocean City Waterfowl Carving Championship. He came away stunned.

"I went in on Saturday morning and had a good look around," he recalls. "When I went back on Sunday morning I had to come out of the hall. I couldn't take any more.

"You begin to wonder why the hell you're carving. If there are guys this good around, why am I bothering?

Very, very tentatively, he entered a kingfisher, a British kingfisher.

"In the intermediate class," he says. "It didn't go anywhere."

But then, he says, it's never gone anywhere in the United Kingdom either. And he's a consistent first-place winner in competitions of the British Decoy Wildfowl Carvers Association.

To a non-connoisseur, the kingfisher appears to be a splendid carving, painted a striking blue and a rich brown.

His birds command from about $500 to nearly $1,500 each. He's a year and a half behind in orders. Yet he doesn't consider himself a great carver. In a nod to the down home origins of his craft he rates himself . . . "middlin."

Some British craftsmen are beginning to carve as well as Americans, he says. But decoy carving is still in its infancy in Britain.

British hunters rarely shot waterfowl over decoys, although carving them is not quite the uniquely American art Americans think. Mr. Patrick-Brown says decoys have been carved for nearly 200 years around the Baltic Sea, especially in Sweden and Northern Germany.

He's only been carving waterfowl since 1988 himself, and he doesn't think he's become as good as he could be. Paradoxically, his success holds him back. He's got too many orders to take time off to produce the masterpiece bird he thinks he's capable of. But he earns his living carving and he's got a family to support.

He's essentially self-taught. Some British carvers have gone to America to learn their technique, notably a chap named Don Briddell, who learned with Lem Ward in Crisfield. Mr. Briddell still carves in the traditional Ward style. Mr. Patrick-Brown has sought his own form of expression.

Before decoys, he made wind-tunnel models for the McLaren Formula One racing team, some in wood, but mostly in aluminum and carbon fiber.

He created models of cars that were driven by John Watson, Nicky Lauda and Mario Andretti -- "a true racing driver and complete gentleman." Mr. Patrick-Brown remains a serious Formula One fan.

After carving his first duck, he spent the next two years building a model of H.M.S. Victory, Lord Horatio Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, making thousands of handmade copper pins for the hull, tying thousands of tiny knots in the rigging.

"I had too much information," he says. "I find when I get information I can't not put that into the model."

Since then he's carved teals, mallards, Carolina wood ducks, Mandarins, American black ducks, Canada geese, shovelers, an Emperor penguin and flocks more.

He'd like to try a long-tailed duck soon, "what they call on the Eastern Shore an 'oldsquaw'."

He leaves unsaid the goal of carving it slightly better than they do on the Shore. He's a modest craftsman. He likes his work to speak for itself.

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