Words by Simon de Burton – a journalist and author based in Dartmoor, South Devon, specialising in heritage and luxury living. He writes for the Financial Times, Country & Townhouse, Daily Telegraph, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among many others.
Collectors of shooting memorabilia have been known to pay seven-figure sums for the finely-carved wooden birds referred to as ‘water fowl decoys’ that were used during the late 19th century (mainly in America) to lure ducks onto ponds and lakes.
But one wooden bird that was never designed for such a deceitful role – and is as incapable of floating as it is of flying – is the one pictured here.
Known within the firm as ‘the founder’s sighting pigeon’ this beautifully rendered avian look-a-like was created almost 200 years ago during the very earliest days of the business.
It has found itself at the wrong end of a gun barrel hundreds, perhaps thousands of times – but, unlike those American decoys that were destined to be in the line of fire from the word go, Purdey’s pigeon escaped entirely unscathed.
The reason for its good fortune is that it was only ever intended to play a passive role within the Purdey premises, where it would be placed on a support at a suitable height above the ground while prospective customers, positioned a few yards away, would take aim at it and perhaps even pull the trigger – but always with an empty breech.
“It’s a basic fact that, when a gun is being fitted, both the gun maker and the client need to be able to agree at what the gun in question is being pointed at,” explains Dr Nick Harlow, Purdey’s archivist.
“Today, we use a reflective board, hung at the back of the Long Room with a pheasant taped to it – the very same arrangement that has been in use since Tom Purdey [the founder’s great-grandson] set it up during the 1930s. Prior to that, however, it was always the founder’s sighting pigeon that was called on to do the job.”
It certainly makes sense to have something both bird-sized and bird-shaped to aim at, and creating one from wood was probably a far better idea than using a stuffed version of the real thing, which would be more fragile and have a far shorter ‘shelf life’.
Crafted by a Skilled Hand
The venerable bird, which now serves a purely decorative role on top of the Long Room’s fireplace, is as beautifully made as might be expected of the perfectionist who founded the eponymous company.
Probably created from bits of walnut left over from stocking work, it comprises several parts that have been connected using meticulous dovetail joints.
Measuring around a foot long and two inches thick, the sighting pigeon stands on a rectangular base and presents an elegant profile with its gently curved beak, a wing carved in relief, the rough outline of a leg – and a simple (but strangely knowing) circular eye.
Although displaying minor dents, scratches and the odd hole here and there, it wears the patina of its near two-centuries of flightless existence remarkably well - and has undoubtedly been elevated from its original position as a “tool of the trade” to one of “objet d’art” with an entirely unique history.