Spring has come, along with steeplechasing and flat racing throughout the Virginia Piedmont. The same springtime spirit can be felt across the racing community, and across the world. Few towns are held in as high sporting regard as Newmarket in Suffolk, England. First settled as a market town after the Norman invasion, Newmarket became a hub of horse racing culture in the reign of Charles II (1630 – 1685). Though James I built the first royal residence at Newmarket c. 1610 to pursue sport, it is only with the restoration of the Crown after 1660 that the town grew to become the international center of horse racing, a reputation that it still holds today.

James Pollard (English, 1792-1867) Newmarket Races, 1909. Engraving from an earlier painting by James Pollard. Copyright Getty Images.

Among the earliest races established at Newmarket is the three-mile Newmarket Town Plate. Charles II founded the race in 1666 with the direction that it should be run in perpetuity. True to this charge, the race has been run for over 350 years. At first there were only two race meets, one in April, the other in October. By 1840 there were seven race meets: The Craven Meeting, the 1st and 2nd Spring Meetings, the July Meeting, the 1st and 2nd October Meetings, and finally the Houghton Meeting. Traditionally the first races of the year took place the week following Easter Sunday. Today the Rowley Mile and the July Course boast races and events every weekend from the Craven Meeting in mid-April to the final meet at the beginning of November.

George Stubbs, English, 1724 - 1806 (Artist); Hyena with a Groom
George Stubbs (English, 1724–1806), Hyaena at Newmarket with One of Jenison Shafto’s Stablelads, ca. 1765–7, oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 50 1/8 inches, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Paul Mellon Collection (image source: https://www.vmfa.museum/piction/6027262-132161010/)

The long history and distinctive style of Newmarket made it a popular subject for the burgeoning market of sporting artwork in the 18th and 19th centuries, and beyond. Many famous equine portraits are set at the stables in Newmarket, meant to commemorate distinguished careers at the capitol of English racing. This subject allowed artists like George Stubbs (1724-1806) and Benjamin Marshall (1768-1835) to demonstrate their skillful mastery of equine anatomy. Other images of Newmarket show frenetic energy and passion before race meets. This time of year it is easy to imagine oneself pressed in a crowd of spectators as jockeys in brightly colored silks line up for the race.

Sir Alfred Munnings, P.R.A. (British, 1878–1959), Linin’ ’em Up, Newmarket, ca. 1940–53, oil on panel, 19 ¾ x 23 ½ inches, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Paul Mellon Collection.  (image source: https://www.vmfa.museum/piction/7898216-110496899/)
Henry Koehler (American, b. 1927), Jockeys Between Races, Newmarket, 2009, oil on canvas, 12 x 16 in. Gift of the artist, 2012.

Springtime races, whether at Newmarket or in the foothills of Loudoun County, marry the traditions of country life with the perennial newness and passion of changing seasons. The brisk air and thundering hooves can be felt across times as old and new are blended together in our cultural landscapes and in the paintings of sporting artists throughout time.

Not able to make it to Newmarket this spring? You’re in luck! Some of these works and other stunning examples of sporting masterpieces are on view at NSLM both in the permanent collection and in Spring’s feature exhibition, A Sporting Vision: the Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, opening April 13, 2018.






Of the many treasures here in the collections of the NSLM, some objects tell more stories than others.  The four-paneled Sporting Screen is a rare and special piece that seems to always be remembered by our visitors. The free-standing screen features the work of many different artists, includes imagery of 18th century horsemanship and racing, and connects directly with books and manuscripts found in the Library’s F. Ambrose Clark Rare Books Room. It’s a perfect fit for the NSLM collection, and was generously donated in 2006 through the bequest of Sonia Phipps Seherr-Thoss (1919-2006).

Four-Panel Sporting Screen (recto), mid-18th/19th century, hand-colored engravings, and oil on canvas mounted on wooden screen, each panel: 81 ½ x 27 inches, Bequest of Sonia Phipps Seherr-Thoss, 2006

The front of the screen (the “recto” side) features 32 individual, hand-painted prints of 18th-century British race horses and four oil paintings. The prints, which include pedigree, ownership, and the winning records for each horse, were first published in 1741 by the painter and printmaker Thomas Butler (British, active 1750-1759). Portraits of the same horses also appear in the beautifully illustrated book The Sportsman’s Companion: or Portraitures, Pedigrees, and Performances of the Most Eminent Race Horses and Stallions (Published in 1820). A copy is held in the Library collection.

Portraiture of Cato, Drawn and engraved by James and Henry Roberts, in The Sportsman’s Companion . . . (London: 1820). Note the decorative  illustration at the bottom of the page which features the same style horse blankets depicted above.

The back of the screen (or the “verso”) features completely different types of scenes showing early 18th century equitation and training.

Four-Panel Sporting Screen (verso), mid-18th/19th century, hand-colored engravings, and oil on canvas mounted on wooden screen, each panel: 81 ½ x 27 inches, Bequest of Sonia Phipps Seherr-Thoss, 2006

Painted after original drawings by the artist John Vanderbank (British, 1694-1739), the scenes illustrate a variety of advanced dressage movements. The same Vanderbank illustrations appear in the 1729 horsemanship manual Twenty-five Actions of the Manage Horse. An unbound copy of this book can also be found in the F. Ambrose Clark Rare Books Room.

The Volte Reversed to the left, drawn by James Vanderbank and engraved by Josephus Sympson, in Twenty-five Actions of the Manage Horse (London: J. Sympson, 1729). “Manage” (also spelled “Manege”) refers to the art of training riding horses, like today’s dressage. The “Volte” is an exercise for flexibility, completed on a small circle. The authors describe it as the “best lesson to make a horse’s shoulders pliable.”

Caring for an object like this presents unique challenges. The screen is made of wood, oil paint on canvas, prints on paper, leather borders, and metal hardware. These materials are all very sensitive to climate conditions (meaning temperature and humidity), as well as light. Those of you who have been to see the screen in person may have noticed the light levels in the gallery are kept rather low, to protect the fragile materials from overexposure and fading. In order to allow the screen some time to rest out of the light, we will soon be moving it into the Museum’s art storage room. We will use that time to have it carefully evaluated – and eventually conserved – by expert art conservators, in order to preserve and protect it.

Screen_detail-1 We look forward to having this great object cleaned up and put back on view soon! To learn more about the art collections and the library collections, visit NationalSporting.org