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.


  1. Heather King,
    Beautifully detailed description of Mr and Mrs Thomas Coltman in the painting. You helped me feel the painting, emotionally. It was as if it was a snap shot of some good friends of mine. I can't imagine what it looks like in person with you as the guide. 😀

    1. Thank you so much. I'm thrilled to hear I've added to your appreciation of what I consider to be a fine painting!