FULL TITLE: THE STABLES AND TWO FAMOUS RUNNING HORSES BELONGING TO HIS GRACE THE DUKE OF BOLTON
Also by James Seymour (1702 – 1752), this well-known picture was painted in 1747. An oil on canvas, it measures 24½” x 29¼” (2’ ½” x 2’ 5¼”) or 62 x 74cm. It is part of the Paul Mellon Collection and currently hangs in the Yale Center for British Art.
|The Stables and Two Running Horses|
I am lucky enough to possess a print of this painting, given to me by a good friend. It tells us so much about the way horses were kept in Georgian times, but I will get to that later.
From London, James Seymour was the son of James Seymour Snr., a banker, diamond merchant, goldsmith, artist and art dealer. Through him, James Jnr. came into contact with all the foremost artists of the day at the Virtuosi Club of Saint Luke, a gentlemen’s club for the lovers or portrayers of art. Seymour Snr. traded in Mitre Court, Fleet Street, under the sign of the Flower-de-Luce. Seymour Jnr. was basically self-taught, learning from the study of various works in his father’s possession. There are drawings in the British Museum of horses’ heads, which he produced in the style of Van Dyck and Tempesta.
When his father died, James Seymour inherited a fortune and was thus able to indulge his favourite pursuits. He adored horses and racing. He enjoyed the high life… and he enjoyed gambling. In the words of George Vertue, art diarist of the time (Tate website):
Jimmy Seymor... from his infancy had a genius to drawing of Horses (this he pursued with great Spirit set out with all sorts... The darling of his Father run thro some thousands - livd gay high and loosely - horse raceing gameing women &c. country houses. never studied enough to colour or paint well but his necessityes - obliged him to work or starve thus his time passd the latter part of his life in baseness and want of all necessaries and dyed in Town in the lowest circumstances & in debt - Southwark June - 1752. aged about or under 50.
Seymour spent more and more time on his passion for horses. He owned and bred them; he raced them; he drew and painted them. Many sporting and aristocratic gentlemen found his work appealing and he began to be patronized by such men as the Duke of Bolton, Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset, and Sir William Jolliffe. James Seymour was renowned for his accurate representations of horses (although, in this painting, the groom is rather less well observed), unlike John Wootton, who was born twenty years earlier, who was often cited as flattering his patrons by exaggerating the size of their equine partners. In some ways, there was a progression of equestrian art, since George Stubbs, born twenty years after Seymour, used scientific research (by dissecting horse carcases) to further his knowledge and professional standing as an artist. Unfortunately, Seymour’s taste for gambling bankrupted him and he was forced to work, yet still died in penury in spite of being well paid by his aristocratic subjects. Nevertheless, he became celebrated in Europe and America and is considered one of the most influential artists of the early sporting school.
There is often a misconception in modern historical fiction, that horses were kept in stables as we would recognize them today – that is, a loose box with half doors. This is not the case. As so beautifully depicted by James Seymour, horses – even ‘famous running [race] horses’ were kept in stalls. They are tethered by log and rope, a simple mechanism of a weight on the end of the lead rein, which passes through a hole in the manger. This allows the horse a certain amount of freedom to move and lie down, but not to turn around or leave the stall. Sometimes, a chain is hooked across the end posts.
Horses have been domesticated for hundreds of years. Their natural habitat is wild, open grassland, where they can see the approach of predators from miles away. It is therefore a testament to their wonderful, giving nature, that they allow us to incarcerate them in small boxes for long periods of time. Yet they are also wise creatures. In the wild, they must forage for food, sometimes travelling miles in the process; suffer extremes of weather; fall prey to predators, disease, malnutrition, lack of water… While not disputing for a moment those dreadful cases of neglect the various animal charities work so hard to prevent, for the most part the domesticated horse is far better off than his wild counterpart.
Consider the shine on the quarters of these two running horses. That is the result of thorough grooming, good feed and exercise. As these two turn towards the groom bringing feed, their eyes are bright; they are alert. The chestnut (the one on the right) would seem to be nickering – making a soft sound of greeting and anticipation. They are rugged up, to keep them warm and protect them from draughts. The stalls are well banked with clean bedding. They have a human servant to provide their every need. As any horse owner knows, if the care is lacking, it shows in the horse’s coat and demeanour. These two are quite content with their lot, even if, like most of us, they have to work for it.
© Heather King