Saturday, 21 November 2015



MR. AND MRS. THOMAS COLTMAN by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797)


Continuing my series on horses in art, in this article I look at a portrait the artist did of his parson friend, Thomas Coltman, in a composition depicting newly wedded bliss.

The painting hangs in the National Gallery, is an oil on canvas and measures 50 x 40 inches (4’2” x 3’4”, 127 x 102 cm). It was completed circa 1770 – 1772.


Mr. and Mrs, Thomas Coltman by Joseph Wright of Derby
Courtesy of the National Gallery


I love this picture. I love the rich rose of Mrs. Coltman’s riding habit, the calm yet attentive demeanour of her grey horse and the playful attitude of the liver and white dog. I also love the jaunty angle of the lady’s hat, which suggests, that while she gazes adoringly at her husband, she is still her own woman.

Thomas Coltman married Miss Mary Barlow at Mary’s home, Astbury in Cheshire, on 2nd October 1769. They were both about twenty-four and Joseph Wright’s portrait epitomises their mutual love and satisfaction with their marriage. The picture is set in the grounds of Gate Burton House, near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, where the couple lived following their wedding. They rented the property, their ascendancy to the position of landed gentry being of a recent order, their money coming from Thomas’ successful London Coffee House. Behind them, a groom is leading up Thomas’ horse and the observer can see, from the way the horse is lifting its hooves and turning its head away from the handler, that it is a high-couraged, mettlesome mount.

Thomas himself is displaying a similar attitude, for although he stands with hand on hip in a relaxed manner, he is gazing into the distance whilst casually resting his other arm across his wife’s thigh, demonstrating both his confidence in his achievements and their relationship. His pose suggests understated energy, as though he has but paused for a moment between bouts of activity. Indeed, he is said to have been a likeable, straightforward gentleman who enjoyed the life and pursuits of the country, and although he later held office as deputy lieutenant of Lincolnshire, overseen by the Duke of Ancaster, he was not given to pretension with regards his intellectual prowess.

There is a certain intimacy to the painting, an undercurrent of sensuality. Seated side-saddle, with her right leg hooked over the pommel, the voluminous folds of her riding habit clearly allude to the way Mary’s limbs are disposed beneath the skirt, while her husband’s stance stretches his already tight breeches the better to display his manly attributes, neatly framed by the cutaway shape of his waistcoat. It is all discreetly done, without a whiff of anything unsavoury, but within the charming composition there is a warm, healthy thread of sexiness and conjugal harmony.

Mary’s horse, while not the focal point of the picture, is nevertheless perfectly cast. His dove-grey coat, accentuated by the charcoal coloured mane, is the ideal foil for Mary’s rose habit with its gold braid and Thomas’ deep blue waistcoat frogged with silver – the subtle allusion to the female-male divide through the contrasting, traditional ‘pink for a girl and blue for a boy’. The horse is well-groomed and cared for, clean-limbed and calm tempered; the epitome of the perfect lady’s hack. His mistress’ position demonstrates her assurance, not only in her equestrian skills, but in her marriage and her freedom. Mary Coltman may be riding side-saddle, but in that supposedly restricting position, she has the freedom to gallop, hunt, jump, sit tall and in comfort, while maintaining complete charge of her horse. As she is mounted, she is also very much in command of the whole tableau. Without the horse, the dynamics of the portrait would be completely different.

Friday, 6 November 2015

New Website!

Branching out...

I have taken the plunge and created my own baby website! It would be wonderful if my readers here would also pay me a visit there!

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Ghoulies and Ghosties and... Vampire Romance

Hallowe’en, or All Hallows’ Eve, is the night before All Saints’ Day, (1st November) when Christians honour those who have died and remember them by celebrating their lives. Hallow (or hallowed) means holy or sacred; ‘Hallowe’en’ is derived from the compression of All Hallows’ Even.

The celebration originates more than 2000 years ago, when the Celtic druids occupied Great Britain and some parts of Europe. They celebrated what is now called the pagan festival of Samhain, which signified the end of summer and the onset of winter. Dark and cold winter days often had associations with death.

It was believed that on the night of Samhain the cloak between the spirit world and the living was but a thin veil, allowing the dead to rise up and come forth from their graves. Huge bonfires were lit to assist the fading sun god and the people would disguise themselves so as not to be recognized. Gradually, witches, vampires, demons, werewolves and fairies were also thought to emerge with the darkness of winter to join the spirits of the dead in a night of revelry.

In a case of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, the Church introduced, in 835, All Saints’ Day and thus Hallowe’en replaced Samhain. Certain superstitions around this magical night led to games and traditions long before the American creation of ‘trick or treat’. Girls would place hazel nuts on a hot grate and give each the name of a potential husband. She would recite, “If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die.” A variant decrees any cracked nuts indicated those suitors who were fickle.

Other games have their origins in Hallowe’en rituals, such as throwing the complete peel of an apple over a shoulder to reveal the initial of a girl’s true love. The practice of setting her shoes in the form of a ‘T’ (in Scandinavia a strong talisman representing the hammer of Thor, the god of thunder, agriculture and the home) on Hallowe’en, and reciting the words, “Hoping this night my true love to see, I place my shoes in the form of a ‘T’.” would ensure she dreamed of her future love. It was also on All Hallows’ Eve when a girl hoped to see in her mirror a candlelight reflection of her future husband.

A more sombre ritual was that of building a bonfire on a barrow or burial mound, since these were thought to be portals to the spirit world. Once it was blazing, the locals would hold hands and dance around it. Often as not, young boys took burning branches and ran across the fields, waving them like torches. Then, when the flames had died down, the lads would have a jumping contest over the glowing embers, all the children would bob for apples and the adults would dance until bedtime.

So, on a night of magic when the spirits of the dead awaken and supernatural beings dance to a pagan drum, if you prefer your vampires romantic rather than terrifying creatures of darkness, perhaps you would rather curl up with some honourable, eternal, gentlemen. In celebration of Hallowe’en, VAMPIRES DON’T DRINK COFFEE AND OTHER STORIES is on offer at just 99 pence or 99 cents!

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