For me, this is the “Slow” Period. My colleagues and I always put air quotes around that because there really is no “Slow” Period for us. There’s the Really, Really Busy Period and Slightly Less Busy Period. With exhibitions now open, I’m able to catch up on projects, including the annual location inventory. Literally just ensuring things are where they’re supposed to be, according to our records (a more in-depth comprehensive inventory is completed every two years).
This gives me time in storage, where I crank up the tunes and just plug away at verifying the Register. As a Collections Manager (and Virgo), I find this very therapeutic and satisfying. It aligns with the mantra of my father (and fellow Virgo), a place for everything and everything in its place.
As I was doing inventory, and with Thrill of the ‘Chace: Steeplechase in Art on the brain, the below two prints caught my eye: A Country Horse Race after artist William Mason (British, 1725—1797). They aren’t steeplechase scenes. Rather, they depict a flat race.
In the first, chaos ensues as two jockeys make their way to the starting line. As explained in Thrill of the ‘Chace, steeplechase and flat races were attended across classes. Many sat in the grandstands whilst others on horseback or in carriages lined the rail or positioned themselves along the course.
As an introvert, I get anxiety just looking at these. There are people literally everywhere getting into all manner of trouble. There is so much to see and something new each time you look at it, it reminds me of a Pieter Brueghel the Elder painting, or a Mel Brooks movie.
In the right foreground, the jockey in blue vertical stripes looks like he’s being harassed but look closer and look towards the hands. Money is being exchanged between the two men. The man on the right doesn’t even look like a real person, he looks more like a gargoyle, almost personifying his wickedness. The horse, who seems to look at us with pleading eyes, is about to be given wine. Looks like someone is about to throw a race.
The left foreground shows a woman in a post-chaise carriage, but no one seems to care that she is of the upper class because they’ve commandeered her accommodations for themselves. A sailor, in wonderfully blue pants, catches a ride as the man above him has thrown his leg over a brazen woman’s shoulder, which seems like one of many accidents getting ready to happen.
The center right shows another carriage with a man hanging out the window and two figures on top getting into an altercation. It says something that it’s hard to tell if it’s playful or not.
Figures crowd the middle, the grandstands, and the rail giving me heart palpitations. I find the three figures in the announcer’s box particularly comical. Facing different directions, observing this mess of an event from the relative safety of their perch, it’s as if they just don’t know what to do. The man with the horn (and furrowed brow), trying to start the race, and with it, perhaps, bring some semblance of order. Sorry, sir, that ship has sailed.
The atmospheric perspective provides a sense of depth, emphasizing the extent of the countryside, and in the back right, we see a church steeple. A study of this print is currently in the collection of The British Museum. Click here to see it. When you’re there, click on Related Objects to see other works of art by Mason, including another race scene.
The second print shows the course as the jockeys race towards the finish line on a flat dirt track. The grandstands can be seen in the background. At this point, my heart rate has only increased, and my palms are sweaty. Crowds of figures ride along, pacing the action, as others watch on the sidelines, cheering them on.
In the lower right-hand corner, a man and woman, and basket of pies, have been knocked over. How did they not hear thundering hooves behind them? To be fair, it seems completely possible the riders went off course. Regardless, this has set off a chain reaction, scaring the dog and boy, who startle the horses. We see a different type of carriage in the foreground, a high phaeton. In the middle, a couple are sharing a horse. Next to them on the left is a woman sitting sidesaddle.
The “rocking horse pose” of the galloping horses is typical of the time, thanks to prolific British sporting artist George Stubbs (British, 1724—1806), who popularized the erroneous portrayal. This pose would endure for at least another century until the birth of photography and Eadweard Muybridge’s famous stop-motion photographs.
An interesting question I posed to our George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Curator Claudia Pfeiffer is whether these figures on horseback directly behind the jockeys are spectators trying to keep up or amateur gentlemen riders. She replied that they were probably both, and likely foxhunters, as well.
What these two prints show best are the crowds. The range of classes, as exemplified by the different modes of transportation and attire, are out to enjoy (or “enjoy”) the day of sport and socializing. But as is typical of satire, it’s been turned into a caricature. Or has it? Satire is a mirror that shows us for who we are, maybe it’s not that off base?
I’ve about had my fill of A Country Horse Race. But if anyone is interested in seeing them, they are currently hanging in the Founders’ Room. Make sure to call the Library first to arrange a time to see them. If you are interested in a history of jump racing, click here for a link to the virtual exhibition of Thrill of the ‘Chace.
Lauren Kraut is the Collections Manager at the National Sporting Library & Museum. Her primary focus is to maintain and preserve the works of art in the collection and on loan. Email her at lkraut@NationalSporting.org