Origins of the “Thrill of the ‘Chace”

Thrill of the ‘Chace: Steeplechase in Art, the recently opened exhibition and accompanying catalogue, explore the birth, growth, and evolution of jump racing and depictions of the sport by artists through to the present day. On numerous occasions, I have been questioned about and flat out accused of an egregious typo in the title. “Chace” is not an error but an early alternate spelling. (Read about a quirky set of 1831 prints of pigs riding pigs in the Library’s collection, The Grand Steeple Chace at Hogs Norton, here.)  For readers of the Chronicle of the Horse, believe it or not, “chacing” was right under our noses for a long time. Between 1945 and 1990, the masthead featured the archaic spelling. We went with it for the exhibition for its quirky appeal and historic roots.

The Chronicle of the Horse masthead between 1945 and 1990

It is not surprising that a sport would need to develop and gain a following of enthusiasts and potential patrons and collectors before sporting artists would see the merits of depicting the pastime in earnest. Steeplechasing’s murky roots begin in Ireland with “pounding matches” in which two foxhunters, adept at navigating the natural and manicured obstacles of the countryside, ran a match race against one another along a loosely designated route until one pulled out of the race or fell. The name “steeplechase” comes from races being organized from church steeple to church steeple with multiple participants and was in use in Britain by the early 19th century. By this time, a variety of earlier activities like “shooting flying”—gunning for birds on the wing with the improvement of firearms—foxhunting, stag hunting, and coaching had already been captured by British artists such as Wenceslaus Horlor (1607–1707), John Wootton (1686–1764), James Seymour (1702–1752), George Stubbs (1724 –1806), Francis Sartorius (1734–1804), and Samuel Howitt (1756–1822). Horse racing on flat courses had also gained a national following and artistic inspiration.

The earliest images of steepchasing are races organized across the countryside. They show farmers, villagers, and foxhunters along the way, and paid spectators at the finish, enjoying the exhilarating fast-paced sport.

(after) James Pollard (British, 1775–1852), The Aylesbury Grand Steeplechase: The Light Weight Stake, plate II; one of a set of four, 1836, aquatint on paper, 15 1/4 × 20 1/2 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum,
Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Norman R. Bobins, 2012

Courses that already held flat races, such as Aintree in Liverpool, still home to the famed Grand National, began to build a variety of obstacles and incorporate steeplechasing into their racing schedules in the 1830s as well. These commercial venues driven by big crowds and gambling also became a subject for artists.

Robert Stone (British, 19th century), Steeplechasers; set of four, c. 1850, oil on panel, 6 x 12 inches, Private Collection

As more and more gentleman riders embraced the activity, a new generation of sporting artists produced oil paintings, watercolors, and prints focusing on steeplechasing. Among them Henry Thomas Alken painted the example below of Market Harborough, where races continued for decades hosted by the area hunt club, becoming a sanctioned steeplechase under the oversight of the newly formed Grand National Hunt Committee (now the National Hunt Committee) in 1866.

Object No. 2014.199 Henry Thomas Alken (English, 1785–1851) A Steeplechase at Market Harborough, Leicestershire, Bad Fall at a Paling Fence, ca. 1840-50, oil on canvas, 10 × 14 inches, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Paul Mellon Collection Photo: David Stover © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

These early images document the emergence of jump racing as an organized sport and are a teaser for Thrill of the ‘Chace: Steeplechase in Art. The eclectic array of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper in the exhibition represents the evolution of the sport and art, the variety of artistic talent, and the stories of steeplechasing from legendary to local, over the course of two centuries. The exhibit is open through March 21, 2021; for current visitation guidelines and to book tickets, please visit our website.

From left to right: Henry Stull (American, 1851–1913), Challenger, 1899, oil on canvas, 23 x 27 inches, Collection of Coleman D. Callaway, III; Henry Stull (American, 1851–1913), Flying the Liverpool, 1904, oil on canvas, 16 x 24 inches, National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame; William Smithson Broadhead (British, 1888–1960), Battleship and Edward Washington, 1955, oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 40 inches, National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame; Eugene Louis Lami (French, 1800–1890), Steeplechase at Raincy; set of 6, 1832, each pen and ink with watercolor on paper, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

We hope you can join us on-line for Virtual Coffee with the Curator on October 3, 2020. I will be presenting a tour of the galleries with ultra-high resolution 360° images made with 42 photographs stitched together. To register for this program, click here.

Claudia Pfeiffer is the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Curator at the National Sporting Library & Museum and has been with the organization since the position was first 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

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