The first selection for this year’s Sporting Bibliophile’s Book Club is Horse by Geraldine Brooks. I can’t tell you how many times each of us on staff heard, “Have you read Horse?!” Therefore, it was a no-brainer for the 2023 line-up.
At the heart of the book is the fictionalized account of Lexington, that, for two decades, was considered the world’s fastest horse. His story is the common thread that weaves through three different centuries, the mid-to-late 19th century, the mid-20th century, and the present day. As it switches between time periods, it also switches between narrators and perspectives, one of whom is the artist Thomas J. Scott (American, c. 1828–1888). Horse was my first introduction to Scott, and I was encouraged to do a little research on him. For those about to read, allow me to share what I’ve learned.
Thomas J. (as I have come to call him) was a student of the artist Edward Troye (Swiss/American, 1808–1874), who came onto the scene in 1832. From that point forward, Troye consistently worked and received such recognition that he became the reigning horse portraitist in the latter half of the 19th century. His conformation paintings were so popular, they were turned into printed engravings available through periodicals like the Spirit of the Times and American Turf Register.
Other NSLM staff have written about Troye. Click here and here for articles by George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Deputy Director and Head Curator Claudia Pfeiffer about the 2014 Coming Home exhibition series on the artist. Coming Home encompassed two exhibitions: Faithfulness to Nature: Paintings by Edward Troye in the Museum and Edward Troye and His Biographers: The Archives of Harry Worcester Smith and Alexander Mackay-Smith in the Library.
Scott, slightly younger than Troye, was born in Tulleytown, Pennsylvania circa 1828. He attended the Philadelphia School of Medicine and briefly worked as a pharmacist before moving to Lexington, Kentucky. He was a pupil of Troye and according to everyone’s favorite sporting art encyclopedia, Animal and Sporting Artists in America, “he became a prolific horse portraitist, considered by many at the time to be second only to Troye himself.” Scott was an itinerant painter, going where the commissions were, including some of the leading horse owners of the time, like Dr. Elisha Warfield. Scott painted Warfield’s horse Alice Carneal, that was mentioned at the beginning of Horse. Brooks writes that he named the horse after his daughter-in-law, I don’t know if that is true, or if that’s a compliment or not…
At the outbreak of the Civil War, and with his knowledge in medicine, Scott joined the 21st Kentucky Infantry as a Hospital Steward. Without going too far down a Civil War rabbit hole, Kentucky was considered a southern border state that had tried to remain neutral before eventually fighting for the Union. This would make sense with Scott being a native of Pennsylvania, though I know there are always exceptions to the rule.
After the war, Scott returned to painting the equine celebrities of the day, like Vagrant, winner of the 1876 Kentucky Derby, and Springfield, one of the ancestors of Man o’ War. The one of Vagrant, though, has been lost to history. It appears many of Scott’s portraits have gone the way of Vagrant and, as you’ll see below, Lexington. It is known, through primary documents, that Scott produced many portraits but locating them has been a difficult task for researchers.
Being the traveler that he was, visiting various farms and stables, Thomas J. undoubtedly picked up knowledge on ways to properly care and breed horses. He funneled this into a side gig as a contributor to the Turf, Field and Farm periodical under the alias “prog.”
Lexington, it appears, was the most prolific of Scott’s commissions and there are at least two paintings he completed of the famed horse. One that is currently in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The other is one I was not sure actually existed until I read the Afterword of Brooks’ book where she mentions “Scott’s missing painting” and points towards Harper’s New Monthly Magazine from 1870.
Besides an exciting account of the 1854 and 1855 races depicted in Horse (which you can find here) is this blurb:
A painting of Lexington featuring Brooks’ other main character, Jarret, now lost. Unsurprisingly, she was unable to find much more information on him elsewhere, but she took this description and ran with it.
Lexington died at Woodburn Farm on July 1, 1875, making headlines around the country.
He was buried with great fanfare at Woodburn. Six months later, he was exhumed and his bones sent to New York. They were originally intended to be part of Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. As we can imagine, putting a horse skeleton back together takes a lot of time and they missed the celebratory deadline. It was then donated, in 1878, to the Smithsonian. In the ten years between its move to Washington, D.C. and the death of Scott, the artist was able to see Lexington again. According to Brooks, Scott was less than impressed with the reconstruction, writing, “…I would suggest that, as a useful guide, he should always obtain an accurate description of the living animal from those familiar with the form.”
For over a century, Lexington’s skeleton moved around the Smithsonian, from outside the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building (also known as the Castle) to inside the Castle to the Natural History Museum before eventually being relegated to attic storage. By the latter half of the 20th century, for most of Americans, Lexington the Racehorse meant little. In 1999, Lexington was rediscovered and loaned out to the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Kentucky.
As for Thomas J., he married in 1871 and had four children with his wife. It appears that he was unable to settle down and remained the itinerant artist. He died in 1888 and is buried alongside his fellow soldiers in, appropriately, Lexington, Kentucky at the Military Cemetery.
The book was quite enjoyable and I’m eager to hear others’ opinions at Thursday’s meeting. Though there was one moment that really ruffled my feathers. Jess, the Smithsonian employee and one of the narrators, just walks into another museum’s storage without a Collections Manager in sight. That must be why it is fiction.
Meetings for the Book Club are FREE, open to NSLM members, and take place quarterly on the last Thursday of January, April, July, and October, at 6pm via Zoom. Click HERE to register for the event.
Not a member of the NSLM? Click Here to join TODAY!