Tuesday, 2 February 2016



In the seventh in my series of horses in art, today I consider one of my favourites. This glorious oil on canvas hangs in the Tate Britain in London (England) and measures 56” x 44” (4’8” x 3’8”) or 142cm x 112cm.

Edwin Landseer
© Edwin Landseer Estate, Photographic Rights © Tate 2016
Available under Creative Commons Licence CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

I love this portrait of ‘Old Betty’, a favourite mare of Jacob Bell, who was one of Landseer’s patrons. I love the detail, the snapshot it represents of a country scene enacted 170 years ago which yet could very easily have been painted yesterday.

Too often, these days, there is an urge to ‘improve’ something which works perfectly just as it is. Fortunately for the age-old craft of farriery, no method of protecting a horse’s hoof from wear has yet been discovered that is better than the one used for centuries. Our understanding of the foot, its structures and the importance to the horse of hoof balance has increased, and rightly so, but the pincers, rasps, hammers, knives and anvils employed by farriers up and down the country (and across the globe) are much as they were in Landseer’s time. The farrier who visits the modern stable yard will wear a leather apron and strong work boots, just as the one in the portrait. Being stomped on by a horse is an occupational hazard and often very painful, so minimizing the risk is common sense. Although glue is now used in some instances, it cannot maintain the bond with the hoof as long or as efficiently in a working horse. A shoe is generally, therefore, still nailed on in the traditional way, with the farrier bent over and holding the horse’s foot between his legs. You can see why farriers are plagued by bad backs!

The one major difference between today and when this portrait was painted is the forge. Rarely nowadays do farriers have their own forge. The times when every village had its own smithy, with a blacksmith able to turn his hand to a variety of different commissions, from shoeing a horse to mending a ploughshare, are long gone. The modern farrier has a portable forge in his van and travels to his clients. He mostly uses shoes made by machine, which he shapes and adjusts to fit on a small anvil a quarter of the size of the one depicted. It would be a sweeping statement to suggest that the travelling farrier will have with him his badly behaved dog that his clients reprimand at their peril, but many do! The bloodhound portrayed in the painting is a study of polite concentration as she chews a piece of hoof and waits for the next bit.

Perhaps the donkey is wondering if Laura the bloodhound is crunching on a carrot as he gazes benignly down at her, his stirrup dangling from a saddle which appears enormous. The Tate’s caption on this painting informs us that incorporating a donkey was ‘a device popular with many other animal painters’, since the shaggy hide of the donkey provided a contrast to the glossy coat of the horse. The composition is balanced and charming, with the hunched figure of the farrier in perfect sympathy with those of the donkey and dog. It was painted some years after it was first commissioned, since Jacob Bell’s intention had been to paint Old Betty with her foal, but by the time it was actually produced, her two foals had both outstripped her in height.

Fellow horse owners might look at Old Betty, curving her head round as if to supervise the proceedings, her eye wide and kind and her ear back – not in ill-humour but to listen – and proclaim the omission of some form of tether. Jacob Bell wrote of the painting that the mare, ‘would stand to be shod or cleaned without being fastened, but had a great objection to being tied up in a forge or against a post or door’. On such occasions this was attempted, she was prone to jerking backwards and breaking her bridle. This is why, nowadays, we tie horses to a piece of string which will break first!

So the mare stands quietly, her gleaming coat drawing the eye to her placid stance and demeanour, while her animal companions, the blackbird in its cage, the litter of hoof parings on the floor, the sultry waft of smoke from the hot shoe being applied to the foot and the whole ambience of the painting give the viewer a sense of peace and serenity on a sleepy afternoon.

Do not make the mistake of thinking the farrier is the central figure in the composition, for that, most certainly, is Old Betty herself. It is written that Landseer had borrowed and ridden the mare on occasion and his affection shines in this portrait for all to see.

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