Earthenware figure, China, 700-750. Museum no. C.50-1964
Museum no. C.50-1964
This magnificent tomb figure is proof of the passion the Chinese have for beautiful pure-bred horses from the West. The intelligent and alert turn of the horse's head and the energy of its well-muscled body is testament to the immense skill of the Tang potter. Emperors of the Tang dynasty (618-907) kept their horses in special stables and parks that occupied large tracts of land around the Tang capital Chang'an (present-day Xian in Shaanxi province). Important tombs held models of these desirable animals.
Guillaume Regamey, 'A Team of Percheron horses', Great Britain (possibly painted), 1870. Museum no. CAI.71
'A Team of Percheron horses'
Great Britain (possibly painted)
Museum no. CAI.71
The Percheron is a heavy draft horse originally from the Perche region west of Paris. This picture depicts a mud-cart tipping out its load. A critic described it as ‘a pleasant thought of [the artist’s] less serious moments, its execution is thorough and solid’.
Head and Partial Torso of a Horse', jade figure, China (Han dynasty), 206 BC - AD 220. Museum no. A.16-1935
Head and Partial Torso of a Horse'
China (Han dynasty)
206 BC - AD 220
Museum no. A.16-1935
This horse's head comes from a tomb of the Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 220). By this period it was common in China for tombs to be highly decorated and for beautiful objects to be buried alongside the body, since it was thought that the burial place became the home for the immortal soul. Jade was especially important in this process, due to its supposed magical powers to preserve the dead body. The unique nature of this head - no other animal carving in jade of its size is known - has caused uncertainty over its dating, but recent archaeological discoveries in China reinforced its assignment to the Han period.
Netsuke, Japan, 18th century. Museum no. 418-1904
Museum no. 418-1904
The netsuke is a toggle. Japanese men used netsuke to suspend various pouches and containers from their sashes by a silk cord. Netsuke had to be small and not too heavy, yet bulky enough to do the job. They needed to be compact with no sharp protruding edges, yet also strong and hard-wearing. Above all, they had to have the means for attaching a cord. Netsuke were made in a variety of forms, the most widely appreciated being the katabori (shape carving), a three-dimensional carving, such as this one in the form of a grazing horse. The most widely used materials for making netsuke were traditionally ivory or wood. Throughout the Edo Period (1615-1868), ivory from the Indian elephant was imported by Chinese and Dutch traders. Owing to the cost of the material, a small piece of ivory would be used to maximum effect. The subjects of netsuke were often originally suggested by the shape of a particular material, as with this grazing horse. In time, however, this particular subject became a standard one used by numerous carvers over a long period of time.
Stoneware roof tile, China, 1500-1650. Museum no. C.392-1912
Stoneware roof tile
Museum no. C.392-1912
In Asia, the roof, by virtue of its position on a building, is deemed a point of communication between heaven and earth. It is a bridge to the world of spirits and a platform for them to descend to earth. Chinese builders sought to harness auspicious spiritual forces and repel evil spirits with applied ornamentation freighted with symbolic meaning. On roofs the most common decoration was tiling. The Ming dynasty was a flourishing period for tile production. The horse was frequently one of a sequence of creatures shown on ridge tiles.
'Jockeys horse racing', painting, India, about 1830. Museum no. IS.210-1950
'Jockeys horse racing'
Museum no. IS.210-1950
The competitive racing of horses is one of humankind's most ancient sports. Horse racing has its roots in Central Asia as this is where prehistoric nomadic tribesmen first domesticated horses in around 4500 BC. In the last thousand years or so, horse racing has flourished as the sport of kings and nobility. The origins of modern horse racing can be traced back the 12th century when Crusaders returned from the Middle East with swift Arab horses, which were raced. Later on, English nobility placed wagers on two-horse races, thus beginning the era of sports gambling.
Push along horse, carved wood, England, 1890-1900. Museum no. MISC.64-1964
Push along horse
Museum no. MISC.64-1964
This little wooden push along horse is very typical of the type of toy that most children would have played with in the early 19th century. Riding was still the main way of getting about and horses were a familiar sight in town and country alike. A horse like this one would have been available in toy shops and department stores. Children from poorer families played with push along 'horses' made from recycled pieces of wood.
William Nicholson and James Pryde, 'Don Quixote', collage for a poster, England, 1895. Museum no. E.1208-1927. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Desmond Banks
William Nicholson and James Pryde
Collage for a poster
Museum no. E.1208-1927
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Desmond Banks
This original collage was for a poster advertising the play 'Don Quixote'; at The Lyceum Theatre, London in 1895. The book 'Don Quixote'; was written in the 17th century by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. It is now considered by some to be the first modern novel, a classic. The story is a satirical romance following the adventures of the eccentric knight errant Don Quixote and his companion Sancho Panza. Images of Don Quixote often show him on his trusty old horse, Rocinante. At the beginning of the book Don Quixote chooses a name for the horse. 'Rocin'; means nag or low grade horse and 'ante'; means before. This artwork was created by the Beggarstaff Brothers - James Pryde and William Nicholson.
Albrecht Dürer, 'The Great Horse', engraving, Germany, 1505. Museum no. E.652-1940
'The Great Horse'
Museum no. E.652-1940
The Great Horse is referred to in English writing during the Medieval period. The breed originated from the heavy war horse brought to England by William the Conqueror in 1066. During the Medieval period it was bred in large numbers so that it could carry knights in full armour. Later it was used principally in agriculture as the main source of power. Its build is ideal for pulling ploughs carriages and canal boats. We now know this breed as the Shire Horse. During World War I and II the Shire horse was used to pull heavy artillery. Today the breed is still used in leisure, commerce and to a lesser extent in agriculture and timber operations.
'The Siege of Troy or the Giant Horse of Sinon', advertisement for an equine spectacle at Astley's Circus, 29 April 1833, printed by T. Romney, London. Museum no. S.2-1983
'The Siege of Troy or the Giant Horse of Sinon'
Advertisement for an equine spectacle at Astley's Circus
29 April 1833
Printed by T. Romney
Museum no. S.2-1983
This 19th century circus poster is illustrated with a woodcut of a giant horse with a soldier at its hooves. This advertised a narrative circus act at Astley's Circus based on the famous Greek tale of the Trojan Horse, as recorded in Virgil's Aeneid. The story tells how the Greeks were at war with the Trojans for ten years. Eventually the Greeks built a giant hollow wooden horse on wheels and hid soldiers inside. They left the horse outside the city of Troy while the rest of their army retreated. The Trojans found the horse, and believing it to be an offering to the Goddess Athena, took it into the city. The horse was so large that the Trojans had to tear down some of their defences to pull it inside. The Greek soldiers climbed out at night and called back the rest of their army, letting them into Troy through the broken defences. The Greeks triumphed over the Trojans and ended the war.
'Cirque Olympic - Exercises Equestres', hand-coloured etching, France, early 19th century. Theatre Museum.
'Cirque Olympic - Exercises Equestres',
Early 19th century.
Horses and trick riding have been a principle act in the circus since its beginning. The modern circus started in 1768 when the English soldier Philip Astley left the cavalry with a white horse called Gibraltar and started a riding school in London's Lambeth, where he also performed tricks on horseback. He performed in a circular arena as the circular motion helped him keep his balance. The popularity of the circus quickly spread abroad. Astley took his circus to Paris while other English acts performed in Russia and America. Trick riders developed acts based on stories in which they could display their strength and balance on horseback. The type of horse was chosen for its broad back and steadiness, and although some riders used a pad to help their balance, others went bare-back.
Chess piece, carved ivory, Germany, 16th century. Museum no. 2998-1856
Museum no. 2998-1856
This carved ivory chess piece shows a knight on horseback. The origins behind the game of chess are unclear, but it is recorded as early as the 6th century in India, China and Iran. It is generally believed that chess originated as a game of imaginary warfare, enabling players to test and enhance their strategic powers. The move of each of the pieces are also thought to reflect battle tactics. In battle (before the age of mechanical warfare), the cavalry would never advance head on, instead they mounted their attack from the side. This mirrors the move of the knight in the game of chess.