This last spring, I was accepted into the Attingham Trust’s The Horse and the Country House course: “This intensive, ten-day study programme, will examine the country house as a setting for outdoor pursuits, such as hunting and racing, and as a focus for horse-drawn travel.” Looking back after returning from the two-week program in England at the end of September, this verbiage was an understatement. It was not only the most intensive, but the most immersive and well-planned course I have ever taken. It also afforded me the privilege of meeting a group of amazing and knowledgeable people, and it is a trip that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Days were filled to the brim with private tours at different venues, lectures, engaging conversation with approximately thirty international course participants, and more (delicious) food than is advisable. (I ate far more “bangers and mash” with onion gravy than I care to admit.) We began our whirlwind tour in Newmarket, the mecca of British horseracing, staying at the historic Jockey Club founded in the mid-18th century.
Visits to the National Heritage Center for Horseracing and Sporting Art with Director Christopher Garibaldi who was also a course participant and planner, to The Gallops training ground, and to trainer’s yards highlighted over three centuries of tradition in breeding, racing, and art. The museum, for example, has on display a painting by John Wootton, Queen Anne and her Entourage on Warren Hill Newmarket, c. 1707 – 1713. The exaggerated slope of the composition in no way diminished the impact of standing in the grass watching horses and jockeys train on that very same hill over three-hundred years later.
The Munnings Art Museum in Dedham in England, location of the former home of famed sporting artist Sir Alfred Munnings and his wife Violet, was another highlight. We were invited for a private viewing of Castle House with 150 works displayed chronologically, Munnings’ studio, the archives, and a tented reception. Director Jenny Hand and staff made us imagine that we were honored guests of the Munnings.
At Euston Hall and Pleasure Grounds, we were again made to feel like cherished guests during the intimate visit. The 6,200-acre property was inspiring, emphasizing the past of the English country house while serving as a sustainable model for the present and future. The 12th Duke and Duchess of Grafton undertook the painstaking conservation and restoration of the grounds and house beginning in 2012. The Duke spoke with pride of reestablishing waterways designed in centuries past and the regional breeds being kept by the family – the Red Poll cattle, Suffolk sheep, and the Suffolk Punch, now a very rare heavy horse breed. In the timelessly-restored interior, the Duchess expanded on their magnificent art collection and the rich, multi-generational history that the works represent.
At Bolsover Castle, we were treated to a private reenactment of manège (the ancestor of modern dressage) riding and training in the historic riding house, bringing static 16th– and 17th-century book illustrations to life. The much smaller area ably navigated by the Spanish horse breeds was also a striking contrast to the showing the day before of para-equestrian dressage rider Charlotte Cundall at the Bishop Burton College arena.
During the discussion after the manège demonstration, Dominic Sewell was asked how he trained his horses. He answered that the “excellent translation of Frederico Grisone’s Gli Ordini de Cavalcare by Elizabeth Tobey” with practical descriptions was instrumental in deciphering the antiquated techniques. It gave me chills. Tobey was the National Sporting Library & Museum’s first John H. Daniels Fellow in 2007. Her research of the Library’s 1550 first edition Grisone – the first manual on manège riding – and others led to her translated and annotated version published in 2014 along with translator Federica Deigan. To see her work in practice was awe-inspiring.
These are just some of the moments over the past two weeks that reminded me again and again why I fell in love with country life and its devotees, art, traditions, culture so long ago. I am humbled and honored to have had the opportunity to be enriched by such diverse and inspiring participants and presenters who all generously shared their unique perspectives on the horse and the country house.
Claudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art 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 email@example.com