“Invented by Thos Butler & Executed at his House. Pall-Mall, London, 1755,” read the prominent and legible inscription and date on one of the panels of the NSLM’s Sporting Screen.
On view in the exhibition, Deconstructed: The NSLM Sporting Screen, through September 15, 2019, this captivating object is presented in its recently conserved state. The screen is decorated with 18th-century themes. On one side are primarily horse and jockey portraits as well as Thoroughbred breeding and a mare and foal image.
Thirty-two mounted and hand-colored subscription prints from the series, Portraits and Pedigrees of the Most Celebrated Racers from Paintings by Eminent Artists, published between 1741 and 1753, have been adhered to canvas and individually tinted. The full series included 34 engravings. NSLM’s screen features 31 unique images from the set and a repeat (Can you find it?). Underneath the hand-coloring, the square prints look like this:
The engravings include the racehorses’ pedigrees, race wins, and crests of the owners: they are among the earliest attempts to produce a formal record of the emerging 18th-century British racing industry. John Cheny, Sr. oversaw the printing of the annually-produced prints beginning in 1741 until Thomas Butler of Pall-Mall, a bookseller and printmaker, took over their publication in 1750 after Cheny died, until the last one was printed in the series in 1753. The engravings are after the works of sporting artists James Seymour (English, 1702–1752) and Thomas Spencer (English, 1700–1765). The four paintings underneath the prints on the screen are also copies of 18th-century works by James Seymour: Fox, Aaron, Cato, and Slamerkin.
On the other side of the screen is a completely different 18th-century sporting theme, classic riding school imagery.
The eight images are copies of illustrations in the 1729 book, Twenty Five Actions of the Menage [sic] Horse, a riding manual written and illustrated by artist John Vanderbank (English, 1694–1739). Trained in classic dressage, Vanderbank created a series of illustrations, many of which were reproduced in his publication.
The date on the screen was a point of interest. On the surface, the riding school and horse racing images support the 1755 production date of the “Thomas Butler” inscription on the NSLM’s sporting screen. Butler advertised his shop’s ability to copy known sporting artist’s works, which would explain the production of the oils on canvas on the screen’s horse racing side and the imagery after the 1729 Vanderbank publication on the other.
The manner in which the paintings on both sides of the NSLM screen were executed, however, points to a later style. Here is an image of an actual oil on canvas by John Vanderbank for comparison to the manége images on NSLM’s screen:
The recent work done by Conservator Deborah Parr on the screen in preparation for the current exhibition afforded NSLM a great opportunity to use scientific analysis to definitively answer the question of when the NSLM sporting screen was made.
Parr took paint samples from sites on the front and back of the screen and sent them off for pigment analysis. This is one of the images from the microscopic review:
The report confirmed that the pigment, Cerulean blue, was present in all samples, a “smoking gun.” Cerulean blue became available for purchase in 1859. The NSLM screen is, therefore, definitively, a 19th-century piece highlighting imagery produced in the 1700s, well before its construction.
One of the questions, I have received about this conclusive findings is whether or not we are disappointed. The result ultimately relates to a decorative object and not a mis-attributed work of fine art. It is fulfilling to be able to settle a research question and have a proven date to contextualize an object. It definitively tells us that sporting enthusiasts in the 1860s were drawn to antique sporting images for decorations in their homes.
Come out and see the exhibit! There is so much more to explore about 18th-century sporting artists and the conservation work that was done on the NSLM Sporting Screen.
Claudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at firstname.lastname@example.org