Sunday, 13 September 2015


Continuing my series on famous equestrian paintings, in this article I look at one of George Morland’s best works. An oil on canvas, it was painted circa 1783 – 1804 and measures 29¼ x 39 inches (74 x 99cm). It hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Morland lived from 1763 – 1804.

The Reckoning, by George Morland

Morland excelled at painting animals and also depicting scenes of rural life. This picture, in itself a social comment by the artist, is rich with detail of an unfolding drama. Paintings of this style, which tell a story, were later dubbed ‘problem pictures’. Morland made his name producing such studies of everyday folk going about their normal business, and although his tendency towards drunkenness and profligacy meant he often had to paint ‘potboilers’ in order to stave off his creditors, works such as The Reckoning open a window on country life in eighteenth century England.

Set in the stable of a probable country inn, a young boy is seeking payment from a farmer. A second man looks on from the doorway, while the ostler (in the buff-coloured smock) is watching the confrontation. The saddle appears too far back on the horse, begging the question, has the girth not yet been fastened? If not, then why, and has this something to do with the disagreement?

The attitudes and expressions of the characters reveal much. The farmer is frowning, clearly displeased with the boy’s request and while his hand is delving into his breeches pocket, he appears reluctant to ‘cough up the readies’. The boy is holding a jug or tankard and is wearing an apron. Whatever the service he has performed, he is bravely holding his ground before a man socially his superior. The farmer is tall and well-built, eats well and is obviously a mean-tempered individual; these factors, plus his ownership of the horse, give him control of the situation. Even though the beast is no more than a rough cart-horse, he confers power on his master, because in the eighteenth century, the horse was transport and capital, much as the car is today.
So the painting is demonstrating social order. The farmer is the ‘big cheese’; the man in the doorway is showing, by his relaxed demeanour, that he is secure in his position, both as a bystander and in the hierarchy, with the ostler and the boy both below him. The two latter, being low servants, were, at that time, subject to the often cruel and petty decisions of such men as the farmer, for they were deemed of less worth than an old cart-horse. In fact, to a lesser degree, certain employers in the equestrian world maintain a similar attitude into the twenty-first century!
Nevertheless, in spite of all the implied intrigues and undercurrents of the picture, the animals are what make it worthy of a longer look. The grey cart-horse, the spaniel and the two bull mastiffs are finely drawn and beautifully executed. You can feel the mastiffs’ interest in the human conflict and the spaniel’s excitement in the scent he or she has discovered. Meanwhile, the horse waits with the patience of his like, almost dozing, indeed, as if secure in the expectation of a corn feed and a rack of hay on his return, whether or nay the poor lackeys go hungry…

Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons

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