Honoring Count Noble, the 'Man O'War of English setters'

The champion bird dog from a century ago may be recognized with marker in Sewickley

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Count Noble, a champion dog whose passing rated an 1891 obituary in The New York Times, left the confines of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History basement more than a decade ago.

Stuffed and mounted, the black-and-white Llewellin setter stars in his own exhibit at the center of the National Bird Dog Museum in Tennessee, still pointing at a covey of bobwhite quail as he did for many years at the Carnegie Museum.

Count Noble's portrait, painted by Edmund Osthaus, still graces the Duquesne Club's first-floor reading room. But American Kennel Club judge Richard LeBeau believes this canine champion deserves more public, permanent recognition.

"He was the Man O'War of English setters," said Mr. LeBeau, a Sewickley Heights man who has competed in the show ring with his own English toy spaniels, a breed favored by society women and gentlemen during the 19th century.

"So well known was the Count that he was seldom entered at the leading bench shows, as the owners of other famous setters objected to competing for prizes where the Count was entered," said the New York Times obituary. "However, most kennel clubs made it a point to offer special inducements to have him shown as an extra feature."

If Mr. LeBeau succeeds in raising $2,000, Count Noble will be honored this fall with a gold-leafed marker placed near a soccer field on land where the $10,000 hunting dog often romped with his friend and master, Captain Benjamin Frederick Wilson, a coal barge operator and banker who died in 1896.

The other side of the marker will commemorate the favored pooch of Susannah Roberts Wilson, who, like her husband, bred and exhibited dogs. Mrs. Wilson's "Mildmay Park Beauty," a black-and-tan English toy spaniel, was the first of her breed to be registered by the American Kennel Club in 1886.

The Wilson family's 14-room mansion and kennels along Beaver Road in Osborne were razed in 1973 so Osborne Elementary could be built. Last year, Mr. LeBeau presented his proposal for a marker to Osborne officials and received one $200 donation. He's been encouraged by Quaker Valley School District officials but has not held a formal meeting with them.

Mr. LeBeau has spent the past year researching the Wilson family at the Sewickley Valley Historical Society. A five-generation pedigree of Count Noble, prepared by Joseph W. Kormuth Jr. of Charleroi, was a godsend to him. Count Noble's story began when he was whelped in August 1879. He was 6 months old when he was imported from R.L.Purcell-Llewellin's kennel in England by David Sanborn, a highly respected trainer and handler in Dowling, Mich. After Mr. Sanborn died, Mr. Wilson purchased Count Noble, who remained at stud at the Wilson residence until his death, 120 years ago last week.

"The term Llewellin setter was coined by Americans," said Keith Smith, an Englishman from Derbyshire who, with his wife, Tessa, raises the breed at his kennels, Lynnhill Llewellin Setters in Saegertown, Crawford County.

Mr. Smith said Count Noble was not known as an outstanding bird dog, but his prepotency -- the ability to pass on his best traits -- made him famous.

"He became a national symbol of what was great in bird dogs," he said.

Richard Llewellin, a famous breeder of English setters who died in 1925, called this dog his "field trial strain."

"So many enthusiasts in America got his dog that they coined the phrase Llewellin setter," Mr. Smith explained. However, the term was never recognized by the American Kennel Club and most clubs simply register it as an English setter, he said.

"In the 1890s, great bird dogs and bird dog competition was reported on nationally, almost like baseball is today. Everybody knew about big bird dog championships," Mr. Smith said.

"Every bird dog in the world, basically, was developed by the British aristocracy. They had the money. They had the time. They owned millions of acres of moors. They had the passion to go shooting."

Bird dogs include Gordon, English and Irish setters; the German short-haired pointer; the vizsla; the weimaraner; and Brittany spaniels.

After some wealthy people petitioned, Llewellin setters were recognized as a separate breed in 1904 by the Field Dog Stud Book, which is maintained by an American publisher in Chicago. For more than 100 years, the Llewellin setter has been bred by enthusiasts as a hunting dog, not a show dog.

"There is a wide range of characteristics," Mr. Smith said. "Some people like the big ones. Some people like the black-and-white. Some people like the tricolored."

Some of his clients want a Llewellin with a heavy coat who can "go busting through the snow in Pennsylvania" while they hunt for grouse.

"There are also people in the South who want it to hunt quail. They want it to stand tall and be fine-boned," he added.

Mr. Smith was sorry to see Count Noble leave Pittsburgh. To make sure he was well taken care of, Mr. Smith wrote a check for part of the cost of shipping the stuffed dog to Tennessee.

"It needed a special air ride van. Here was one of Pittsburgh's very own, a dog of such worldwide importance and prominence. We already had him, but we gave him away."

Though Llewellin setters are bred to hunt, they are also excellent family pets, Mr. Smith said.

"It tends to be a more compact dog with a square head. It's always going to be affectionate. It fits in with a family. [The dogs] don't mind being pulled around and played with. They can be protective of children. Sporting dogs, as a whole, make the most reliable companions. They can just read you, too. That's why they're so adored by people," he said.

Mr. Kormuth, who prepared the five-generation pedigree of Count Noble, competed in regional field trials and had 42 wins with an Irish setter, Ruby Wons Over. Count Noble, he said, was versatile because he could run great distances but also go hunting on foot, and sired progeny with a range of talents.

Along with generations of Pittsburgh art students, Mr. Kormuth often went to the Carnegie Museum to admire the 25-foot-long display that featured Count Noble hunting in autumn. On a 1999 visit, before the display was shipped to the Tennessee museum, he overheard a 10-year-old girl say, "Ooooh, there's a dog in there."

Mr. Kormuth said to himself, "Girl, that's not a dog, that's Count Noble."

on the web

To view a copy of the obituary of Count Noble that appeared in The New York Times, visit


Correction/Clarification: (Published January 25, 2011) A story Sunday about champion Llewellin setter Count Noble gave an incorrect date for his birth. He was born in August 1879.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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