Man’s Best Friend, Through the Ages

July 26, 2011

If you asked most people what Middleburg, VA has that can’t be found anywhere in the U.S., you’d probably hear something sounding a little like a travel brochure.

Something like: a thriving equestrian culture just an hour outside the city, a chummy community of tavern owners, vintners, billionaires, and shopkeeps, a tradition of rustic living held onto as tightly as horse reins.

What you probably won’t hear about is the nearby, near-priceless cache of books in the National Sporting Library and Museum’s basement.

But you should. The library’s trove of rare books and art, everything from first editions of Hemingway and Walton’s “Compleat Angler” to the paintings of sporting artist Alfred Munnings to Paul Mellon’s collection of antique weathervanes, gives you that surreal, ghostly feeling you get around something beyond your age and time. Embrace it. The 56-year-old library’s holdings are the envy of scholars across the Old and New Worlds, and in the esoteric worlds of classical sportsmanship — that is, angling, foxhunting and the rest — the collection there reigns supreme. And just in time for summer’s proverbial dog days comes the library’s newest exhibit, “Lives of Dogs in Literature, Art and Ephemera,” a one-room shrine to man and, more importantly, man’s best friend.

“We decided to focus this on the complex relationship between humans and dogs and show, over 400 years, some of the examples of how people related to their animals,” said Mickey Gustafson, the library’s communications director and curator of the exhibit. The inspiration came from a lecture at a library symposium last fall by gallerist William Secord, whose book on the dog’s historical role in art caused such a stir it prompted staffers to dive into the archives looking for more artifacts to make into an exhibit. They soon found their cup running over.

“It was culling, narrowing down,” Gustafson says. “We had over 75 [dog] collars, for example, and you’ve seen how many books we have. Within the books, choosing what page to have open, and finding relationships between all these things … That’s fun. To me, it was like creating an installation, like an artist, almost.”

Actually, it would be hard to deny any claim to artistry or history, especially since the exhibit — and museum — are practically alive with it.

Founded by sporting enthusiasts George Ohrstrom and Alexander Mackay-Smith in 1954, the collection that started with 7,000 assorted volumes has grown to 17,000 meticulously categorized titles, some dating back to the 16th century. The library is open to the public, who may freely browse most stacks, but may not check out items.

The main floor, appointed in wood boiserie, is stocked with books on everything from bullfighting to fly fishing, but it’s the rare book room on the bottom level, temperature controlled and sealed behind glass, that should get the bibliophile’s juices flowing (tours are available by appointment Tuesday through Friday).

“This is really unique material, and a lot of this has never seen the light of day. There’s lots of that kind of stuff here that people just aren’t aware of,” said the library’s Chief Operating Officer Rick Stoutamyer, born and raised a sportsman in West Virginia before entering the rare book business.

Besides a healthy collection of first editions throughout, the rare book section houses the library’s oldest volume (on dueling, dating to the 1520s), along with an original manuscript penned by a young Theodore Roosevelt, in which he wrote about Long Island fox hunting for the now-defunct Century Illustrated magazine. “The thing that’s really cool about it,” said Stoutamyer, “is if you look there’s very few corrections, really. He pretty much knew what he was going to say when he sat down to write it.”

Not bad for a budding president. Elsewhere, readers can find an original set of John Audubon’s “Birds of America,” the riding tutorials of Vladimir Littauer — who brought to America the idea that riders ought to lean forward on horseback — and a beautiful collection of fore-edge paintings, jargon for watercolors painted over the edges of a book’s pages.

Inside “Lives of Dogs,” entrants are greeted by a bronze bust of a foxhound, its expression etched somewhere between curiosity, drive and affection. It forms the center case in a square room, surrounded by other boxes of glass tucked against the walls. Within each sits an antique dog collar or two, some picked for their craftsmanship, others for quirks. One collar, built for hunting, sports a row of sharpened metal teeth to protect the hound during a scrape with pugnacious wildlife. Another, daintily built of sterling, bears the Tiffany’s stamp and, not surprisingly, a Gramercy Park address.

Throughout the cases are books of sketches and paintings and scenes of the hunt, the infectious excitement and pandemonium enough to move even 21st-century eyes. One engraving by the Belgian Johannes Stradanus, for instance, shows a royal hunt reaching crescendo: the lord holds his spear aloft, his hounds nipping at the stag’s heel. In his “Booke on Hunting” Englishman George Turbervile extols the culture of the hunt, well over a decade before Shakespeare even lifted a pen.

And on the walls you have the paintings, including Oudry’s “Poodle Flushing a Heron,” displaying the flourish that made him a favorite of Louis XV. “The king of France became really fascinated by [Oudry],” says Gustafson. “He would invite him to the palace and have him paint portraits of his dogs while the king watched and talked to him. He was immensely successful. In the development of European art, there’s this sense of eventually becoming interested in depicting things realistically and then also with a lot of drama and decoration. Things are not as easily defined as we often think.”

You could say that again. In the painting, a poodle has cornered a large heron, reared up in a fashion starkly frightening and primal, a kind of rage at wit’s end. On the adjacent wall hang a few (gentler) landscape works by John Emms — pastoral, faintly sentimental and, of course, crowded with dogs.

As a whole, the exhibit serves to remind us of the animal that touches and shapes our lives, sometimes as much as people do. Since it opened in late May, it has proven a hit, not least among dog lovers. “I think it’s really a rich environment, and we’ve had a lot of people who come to see it, and they seem to spend quite a bit of time here,” says Gustafson. “A woman was here the night we opened and she really knew dogs and [pointing to a painting] instantly said, ‘That’s a French dog, a French beagle.’ … Some other people came in and talked about the collars. Different things were appealing to different people.”

“Lives of Dogs” is on display until Dec. 11 at the National Sporting Library, 102 The Plains Road, Middleburg, VA. Admission is free.

This article appeared, in condensed form, in the Aug. 11 issue of The Georgetowner.
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Festivals In Fall

Can it get any better than illumined leaves, chilly evenings and harvest season on farm and vineyard alike? Actually, it can. Hunt country’s got some fabulous fests on tap this fall, so gather up a tasting (or riding) crew and get yourself out of town. Here are our top picks:

13th Annual Taste of Rappahannock Festival Sept. 11, 6 p.m. Belle Meade Schoolhouse, 2 Belle Meade Lane, Sperryville 540-987-3322 Tickets $150, table sponsorships available

They do it for the kids. Rappahannock County’s students have always been the primary beneficiaries of the region’s decade-old festival, this year more than ever. Students will feature prominently throughout the evening, from serving hors d’oeuvres to providing a little night music. Meanwhile, guests can count on a solid night of socializing and a chance to bid on a week-long stay at Burgundy’s Le Silence farmhouse. Feel like staying stateside? Raise your bid paddle for a VIP tour of Sperryville’s Copper Fox distillery, a trip to Cancun or a theater weekend in downtown D.C., among others.

National Sporting Library and Museum Polo Benefit Sept. 19, 12:30 p.m. Llangollen, Upperville 540-687-5053, Tickets $100, table sponsorships available

Baseball might be America’s pastime, but in hunt country, polo reigns supreme. Rub shoulders with the region’s equestrian elite at the Virginia International Polo Club’s benefit for the the National Sporting Library in Middleburg. In the English garden party tradition, a luncheon will take place at the International Polo Club pavilion, followed by a silent auction and polo match featuring prominent players from Argentina, Chile, and the United States. A vintage silver trophy, donated by Jacqueline B. Mars (of candy bar fame), will be awarded to the winning team — and will be on display at the library throughout the year. Don’t pass up this quintessential snapshot of life in the country.

The Commonwealth Cup of Polo 25th Anniversary Sept. 12, 1 to 6 p.m. Great Meadow, 5089 Old Tavern Road, The Plains 703-823-1868 Admission $30, purchasable online at

This rousing and spirited international polo tradition pits the US against the Brits in an afternoon of good fun for a good cause. Consider it a double-hitter: the Commonwealth Cup and The Wine Festival at The Plains pair up for one spectacular weekend key benefit match for raising vital funds that support projects for British and American servicemen and women all over the world. Guests will enjoy tastings of over 275 of Virginia wines, fine art and gourmet cuisine prepared by regional chefs. Activities also include wine and cooking demonstrations on the Viking stage, fancy hat and tailgate contests, and a carriage-drawn champagne divot stomp at halftime.

Second Annual Rappahannock County Farm Tour Sept. 25-26, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 12018 Lee Highway, Sperryville 540-675-5330 Admission $5

Weekend tour-goers will experience personally what the “Buy Fresh/Buy Local” movement is all about during the 2nd Annual Rappahannock County Farm Tour Weekend. More than 20 Rappahannock farms, orchards, and wineries – as well as farm-to-table student programs and environmental organizations – will participate in this self-guided, countywide, family-friendly farm tour. Tour-goers can pick up tour maps, buy local products, and listen to presentations at the “All Things Rappahannock” farmers market at The Link in Sperryville, which also will serve as the starting point for the tour.

Chrysalis Vineyards’ 10th Annual Wine and Bluegrass Festival Oct. 2 and 3, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 23876 Champe Ford Road, Middleburg 540-687-8222 Admission $20 at the door, $15 in advance

A long-time apologist for the uniquely American grape at which even hardened oenophiles can no longer turn their noses, Chrysalis is pairing up some of their latest bottles of Norton with another old-time Virginia favorite — bluegrass. Get out of the city and head west to Middleburg for a weekend of tastings (including Chrysalis’ recently debuted 2009 Norton), artisanal chocolate and cheese and the music of Jackass Flats and Hickory Ridge.

Streetcars Nixed, Resurrected

May 23, 2011

When it comes to talk of the District’s streetcars, you better not blink.

DCist reported at noon today that the city council voted to effectively halt the massive downtown streetcar project by stripping from it $49 million in funding designated in the 2011 budget. However, less than four hours later, WeLoveDC reported the council immediately backpedaled after a deluge of angry phone calls and emails from irate constituents, eventually reinstating the project.

Earlier in the day, Mayor Fenty, who was once an outspoken supporter of the streetcar network, suddenly seemed to desert what seemed like his pet transportation project, saying debate over how to best power the cars had yet to be resolved, along with the question of whether the infrastructure would connect with Union Station. The council’s original vote would have shelved the project until 2014. Several million dollars and over 37 miles of track have already been invested in the system.

The streetcar scheme still isn’t out of the woods, yet, though. After the uproar, the council immediately reinstated only $10 million of the original budget, with a projected $37 million forthcoming.

Still, talk about democracy in action.