Picture perfect, why we all love equestrian art

By: Horse Deals

Picture perfect, why we all love equestrian art
Blue Triptych by Sally Martin, SEA: no matter which discipline, you’ll find something you’ll love

Why do we all love equestrian art and why do artists love horses? Pippa Cuckson finds out

Man was etching images of his horses on cave walls 16,000 years ago, but nothing has changed the way we can capture our favourite companions for posterity as much or as quickly as the technology of the 21st century.

Thanks to digital cameras, even the amateur can snap away until he gets a defining shot of his favourite equine companion. With the click of a mouse, he can beam his still or moving image around the world.

It’s easy to assume this instant imagery might have finally triggered a decline in our centuries-old interest in equestrian art, especially when luxury goods are usually the first things people stop buying in a recession.

But in fact all evidence is that equestrian art has never been more popular.

For the everyday consumer, most major three-day events and horse shows have waiting lists for art-related tradestands, and everything from £70 prints of Munnings and Snaffles favourites to original oils with a multi-thousand pound price tag can be bought from an overwhelming array of websites.

Equestrian art remains good "box office" for rural galleries and major city art houses alike. The major George Stubbs exhibition at the National Gallery in 2005 attracted 68,000 visitors — on a par with visitor numbers to its Rubens retrospective of the same year.

The Society of Equestrian Artists has more than 450 members and interest is so strong that it is planning an open exhibition in 2010, its first in many years.

So what is behind the enduring appeal of the horse in art?

West countryman Colin Allbrook is one of Britain’s leading equestrian and wildlife artists, and is quite clear why the genre will always be loved.

"Where art’s concerned, most people feel comfortable with the things they already see around them, and horses are still integral to peoples’ lives," he says. "With a photograph, you capture a moment in time but it can often not look like the horse as you know it. With a piece of art you can keep adding to it and see it from all angles until you get a sense of the animal. That’s what gives the enjoyment."

Colin’s approach has its roots in the horse as a component of an overall rural landscape. For others, the drama and energy of the athletic horse itself is the inspiration.

Michelle McCullagh, at 23 already noted as a great talent, recently completed her first solo show and is already tackling lifesize works. She was brought up in a conventional Pony Club/hunting household, though on a visit to her brother in Australia she was hooked by the fast imagery of polo, which has featured in some of her favourite works.

You get the feeling that interaction with the horse on canvas gives her even more of a buzz than spending time with the real thing.

"The passion of the horse is what fuels my work," she says. "I like to use a big brush and paint, say, a whole muscle in just one stroke.

"The problem with an 8ft painting is that you can get stuck with it if no one has the room to buy it, but you can’t do justice to the horse with something small — he has far too much boldness and energy!"

Leading sculptor Gill Parker adds: "Nature inspires me, and if you love something you’re going to try and represent it is some way. I used to try to write poetry but I then found I was more able to express what I felt with my hands. Horses are a great crossover subject. Their shape and
physicality make them a beautiful piece of art, even for people who aren’t interested in them in any other way."

Maybe the more significant factor behind the resilience of equestrian art is the determination of present-day practitioners to succeed outside the mainstream art world.

Until the start of the 20th century, it was prestigious for military leaders to commission portraits of themselves on their chargers by leading artists and for sporting gents to consign their racehorses to oil. But unlike his forbears, Picasso never felt the need to paint a Derby winner.

Nowadays, the subject matter is afforded no kudos by connoisseurs of high art and those who want to specialise aren’t catered for in education. Many leading equestrian artists have had no choice other than to be self-starters.

As many readers will know from their own frustrating attempts, the horse is a complicated creature to draw, so its representation is completely alien to conceptualism — the ongoing vogue in the "serious" art world in which an idea takes precedence over the skill required to execute it.

Sculptor Debbie Burt, secretary of the Society of Equestrian Artists, tried to pursue equestrian art on leaving school but felt discouraged by her tutors, who weren’t interested in the subject matter. It took 20 years, and with another career in between, before she felt confident to try again.

Michelle McCullagh resigned herself to studying anatomy in her own time while on a degree course in fine arts. She graduated over a year ago, but still feels she needs further
drawing tuition.

"I made the very most of my time there, but they pushed you to be conceptual and contemporary," she recalls. "One holiday, I did some life studies of our horses at home and took them back to college. They said: ‘That looks like a 19th century picture of a horse,’ put them aside and tried to interest me in other styles. It was very frustrating, but you have to battle on."

Gill Parker is completely self-taught.
"I can honestly say there isn’t anything I could have learned better at college, and no one knows more about bronze and casting than the guys at the foundry," she explains. "Colleges don’t teach anatomy any more. I approached a local one to ask if they had any of the anatomical models that were used as references in the 19th century and they said they’d got rid of them!

"Having said that, no one could teach a technique to convey the mental attitude of the horse, which is integral to any art-form.I’ve come to understand that, and the way the
horse moves, simply by being around my own over the years."

Eventing personality Julian Seaman has enjoyed a parallel career as a lecturer at the world famous St Martin’s School of Art in London, where he was also a student in the 1970s. Julian himself never felt drawn — excuse the pun — to paint horses but he appreciates the struggle of those who do from both sides of the coin.

"Because of conceptualism, over the past 20 or 30 years there’s definitely been a backlash against the teaching of the straightforward skills you particularly need to represent horses — how to draw, how to mix colours," he says.

"But if you’re as famous and successful as Damien Hirst, you can come up with the idea and then pay someone else to help you make it happen!"

Colin Allbrook says: "You should feel safer with a pencil to start with, and as you progress you can still do a lot with shape, form and tone without worrying about colour. However much paint you slap on, if the drawing’s wrong, it will always be wrong.

"Most people try equestrian art because they have a horse background. This can be a disadvantage initially because they try to draw something too perfect, what they think
it should look like. Look closely and draw what you see. That’s what will give your picture character."

Art organisations

Britain has two main organisations for equestrian art and artists.

The British Sporting Art Trust (BSAT) promotes the historically important and/or priceless sphere, with a permanent display of works of equestrianism’s "old Masters" — Stubbs, Munnings, Herring, Skeaping and many more — in its Vestey Gallery at Newmarket. It also sponsors
exhibitions at important venues elsewhere. Through the trust, more than 50 major works were acquired for the Tate, including 30 from the estate of the philanthropist Paul Mellon, and it has made donations to museums such as the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge to help purchase sporting works of art.

BSAT publications include A Bibliography of British Sporting Artists and more than 50 essays. It has also commissioned an inventory of sporting art on public display in the UK.

The promotion of more affordable contemporary artists is co-ordinated by the Society of Equestrian Artists (SEA), a registered charity open to amateurs and professionals of all ages — it costs as little as £25 to join. Although such luminaries as Susan Crawford, Colin Allbrook, Gill Parker, Judy Boyt, Neil Cawthorne and Barrie Linklater are members, many of the SEA’s leading lights assist amateurs at annual workshops. It also stages an annual members’ exhibition at the Mall Galleries.

Visit www.equestrianartists.co.uk for
links to many of its members’ own sites