Horsing Around

This week we are celebrating Chinese New Year, ringing in the Year of the Horse. The recent acquisition of Joey has put all at the V&A in a rather horsey mood, providing The Factory yet again with the perfect opportunity to search through the Word and Image collection, and pull out some of our finest equestrian examples to share with you.

Untitled design, unknown artist, ca. 1760. Museum no. E.1298-1988. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This print illustrates embroidery designs depicting scenes from Chinese daily life. In the bottom left corner is a richly adorned steed, being ridden for parade purposes –note the dangling ornaments from its bridle. On the second row is a horse again, with his rider looking into the distance, at his far-off destination. The earliest realisation that horses could be ridden (evidence of a bit dating to 3500 BC has been found on a site in Khazakstan) caused something of a revolution, as suddenly long distances could suddenly be traversed at speed, elevating the status of the horse above the generic stock animal. This print marries the two, as we see the pageantry associated with one horse, and the practicality with another.

‘ECLIPSE’, engraving by Scott, after George Stubbs, published 1823. Museum no. E.873-1896. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Next, an engraving by the ‘horse man’ himself George Stubbs. This engraving (actually a copy by another artist of one of Stubbs’ paintings) is of the stallion ‘Eclipse’. The Red Rum of the eighteenth century, Eclipse won 18 major races , in just 17 short months, after which he was forced to retire, as no-one was betting on any other horse!

‘Tam O’Shanter,’ by Thomas Stothard, ca. 1775-1825. Museum no. FA.198[O]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Horses also feature heavily in popular mythology and folklore. This painting by Thomas Stothard tells the story of Tam o’Shanter. Tam, a character in a Rabbie Burns poem of the same name, sets off home from an inn on his grey mare, Maggie. On his way he happens upon a Witches’ Sabbath. The witches see Tam, and chase him. Being a luckier chap than Actaeon, he gets away, thanks to Maggie’s lizard-like skill of detaching her tail when a witch grabs hold of it!

‘White Horse,’ photograph taken by Wade Shaw, 1972. Museum no. E.88-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A has a huge collection of digital art. This computer generated image by Wade Shaw, entitled ‘White Horse,’ has a certain transfixing beauty. White horses through history have been prized above any other. In the first print, the decorated horse is white, whereas the travelling horse is brown.  In the eighteenth century, the House of Hanover adopted the white horse into their coat of arms. The current House of Windsor has continued this, with the white unicorn supporting half of the shield, opposite the lion. Unicorns, and other mythical horses, such as Pegasus, are again, always depicted as white, the colour of purity, showing their stature above all others.

‘Colts on Lexden Hill; Recording Britain Collection,’ by Walter Bayes, ca. 1940. Museum no. E.1379-1949. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In a moment of self-indulgence, however, I’ll share with you my favourite image of horses in the collection. Set in a beautiful landscape on Lexden Hill, they have a placid, peaceful charm about them. It is rare to find such naturalistic images of horses, as they are usually depicted in some kind of interaction with humans. This painting recalls the happier moments in the life of everyone’s favourite literary horse, Black Beauty, frolicking in the meadow with Ginger and Merrylegs.

If our collection has inspired your enthusiasm for all things equine, please do come and see these objects, and the plethora of others we have, in the Prints & Drawings Study Room. Happy Chinese New Year!

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