A Belgian double from an artist’s hands
By Vic Venters
Photographs by Terry Allen
Though he’d hunted grouse in New England for a couple of decades, John Vibber was mostly new to fine guns in 1992 when he found an Auguste Francotte boxlock at an antique sale in the parking lot of the Shelburne Museum, in Vermont. “It looked and felt streamlined,” said Vibber, today a retired teacher and author in Burlington. “I was surprised by its light weight, and it was better balanced and more dynamic than any other gun I’d shot up to that time.”
Vibber’s knowledge of doubles had theretofore mostly been gleaned through reading Steve Bodio’s Good Guns, a slender but influential book in the then-burgeoning fine-gun scene that characterized wingshooting in the 1990s. Although he didn’t know much about Francottes at the time, Vibber was a fan of the gun’s former owner: Ogden Minton Pleissner, the famous American landscape and sporting artist whose works feature prominently in the collections of the Shelburne Museum.
Pleissner—whose mastery of lighting to evoke mood in his paintings is favorably compared to Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth—had lived in Vermont since the late ’40s, spending his last years in Manchester before passing away in 1983 at age 78. His widow, Marion, had written a note on her letterhead—then in the dealer’s possession—stating that Francotte No. 20576 (as well as a Holland & Holland) had come from her husband’s estate.
The Francotte had blackpowder-proof Damascus barrels, but Vibber took a gamble and bought it anyway. “These were the days before anyone knew much about shooting Damascus,” he said. For advice on restoring and shooting the gun, Vibber brought it to Bodio, then a visiting teacher at a writing workshop at nearby Sterling College.
“I was extremely eccentric back then,” Bodio recalled, “in that I shot more Damascus than not, so people came to me to get advice, i.e. ‘permission,’ to shoot Damascus guns.”
Based on its serial number, 20576 had been made around 1892, when Belgium’s colonial empire and the Liège gun trade were near their peak and Auguste Francotte was one of Liège’s most important makers of sporting guns. Von Lengerke & Detmold, a Manhattan-based establishment that catered to New York’s wealthy sporting set, imported the gun roundabout then. At the time VL&D sold a wide variety of guns, American and English, and especially Continental brands such as J.P. Sauer, Mauser, Greifelt, Mannlicher-Schoenauer and, most successfully, boxlock shotguns made by Francotte in a range of models.
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Today extant VL&D records belong to Griffin & Howe, the successor to New York’s Abercrombie & Fitch, which acquired VL&D and G&H in the late ’20s. Surviving VL&D ledgers begin in 1900, so the particulars of 20576 are not recorded, but upon examining photos G&H archivist Bob Beach (a Francotte expert) believes the Pleissner gun most closely resembles an early iteration of the Featherweight Quality I—in other words an Anson & Deeley non-ejector with modest coverage of well-executed scroll, made in 12-gauge with Damascus barrels, with proprietary intercepting sears, a Greener crossbolt with a straight rib extension, and plain side panels with teardrops on the stock behind the action. In the first decade or so of the 1900s the model was priced at $125, a couple of steps up from VL&D’s popular utility-grade Knockabout ($60 to $85) and a bit more expensive than a Parker DH ($100) or L.C. Smith No. 3E ($115). Prices climbed to $450 for Francotte’s more elaborately engraved and finer-finished boxlocks, culminating in the sideplated and gold-inlaid Eagle grade.
Pleissner’s Francotte was tight and mechanically sound, but it had been hunted hard and someone sometime had blued the barrels, though their figure still showed through a well-worn finish. Vibber turned to master gunsmith Keith Kearcher to rebrown the tubes—which Damascus-expert Drew Hause has since identified as “3-Iron Crolle,” a pattern-welded iron-and-steel barrel type typically found on good-quality, mid-priced guns of the period. Vibber also had another ’smith recut the checkering and install a recoil pad. Finished with the new pad, it weighed 6 pounds 11.5 ounces and had a length of pull a shade more than 14 inches.
Pleissner was a fine wingshot, by all accounts, and in his sporting art birds and men with dogs and doubles abound.
The 28-inch barrels had 2-5/8″chambers and ample wall thickness—.035″and .034″, right and left—for the sort of modest loads Bodio had proposed. It was choked Cylinder and tight Modified, and Vibber hunted grouse with it for years and shot clays on occasion. He credits the old Francotte (and Bodio) for helping spark his passion for fine guns. Vibber recently consigned the gun for sale with Kirby Hoyt of Vintage Doubles, mostly because he has found a lighter 20-gauge that fits him better.
What the Francotte meant to Pleissner, what coverts and fields he carried it through, what he may have killed with it and what he missed—sadly, we know none of that. His widow’s letter did not disclose how and when the artist acquired the gun. Its life through undoubtedly several owners—and things have lives through the hands of Man—remains like a ghost: perhaps glimpsed but mostly imagined.
Pleissner was a fine wingshot, by all accounts, and one whose commissions took him around the world, and in his sporting art birds and men with dogs and doubles abound. Some of his best work is of ruffed grouse hunting in New England. “I like shotgunning and partridge hunting,” he told his biographer, Peter Bergh, near the end of his life, “but I am getting a bit old for it now. Partridge always seem to fly uphill, and the hills get steeper every year.”
I’d like to imagine that he sometimes held a Francotte in his hands when he tackled those hills.
Though best known among the sporting set for his paintings of wingshooting and fly-fishing, Ogden Pleissner described himself as “a painter of landscapes who also liked to hunt and fish.” Beginning with summers in Wyoming as a young man, the artist visited and painted stunning landscapes throughout his life, from the American West, New England and the Maritimes to western Europe and the UK.
There is no doubt where one goes to see Pleissner’s fusion of landscapes and sporting art: Vermont’s Shelburne Museum, where John Vibber found his Francotte. The museum’s 600 works by Pleissner make it the preeminent collection of his work, which he bequeathed following a long relationship with the museum.
Selections of 40 or so are shown in a rotating exhibit in the museum’s Ogden M. Pleissner Gallery, where an exhibition titled “Upstream with Ogden Pleissner” will “transport viewers to some of the avid angler’s favorite streams, rivers and lakes.” The exhibition will run from May 2017 through October 2018.
The Pleissner Gallery also includes the artist’s studio (above), rebuilt from Pleissner’s Manchester, Vermont, home.
Among its many collections, the Shelburne Museum has 1,400 wildfowl decoys and Vermont-made historical firearms. —Ed Carroll