Rapunzel Horses – the hot accessory of Early Modern Europe?

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I’ve been reading beautifully illustrated books about horses all my life and in the last twelve years I’ve trawled all sorts of academic articles and image libraries, so it’s always delightful to find an image I’ve never seen before. The Palazzo Pitti in Florence just opened an exhibit called Leopoldo de’ Medici: Prince of the Collectors to celebrate what would have been the cardinal’s 400th birthday. Someone shared this image of the young Leopoldo in a Facebook group for Lipizzaner fans, and I was smitten. The 1624-1625 painting is by Justus Sustermans, a Flemish court painter to the infamous Medici clan. Look at the detail: the flecks of foam on the paving under the horse’s mouth, the way it’s patiently resting one hind hoof. What I’d give for a huge poster of it!
But of course the really striking thing is that MANE. ALL OF IT. Has anyone written about the meaning (if any?) of the turnout of court horses in the Early Modern era? I’ve seen great articles on baroque bits and read about the costumes worn in carrousels, but do we know anything about this commitment to hair? It’s not mentioned in the rather beautiful part of Guerinière’s The School of Horsemanship that describes exotic coat colours and the significance of whorls (read an earlier post about that here). But it does feature in other images, like those in the Certamen Equestre (Gallica has a facsimile online for extended tea-break consideration and these screengrabs are sourced there):

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This book records a carrousel and procession that took place in Stockholm on 18 December 1672 to celebrate the coming of age of Karl XI at 17. It was illustrated by the court painter, David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl, and these plates were later engraved by Georg Christoph Eimmart in Nuremberg. Lena Rangström has written the most detailed account in volume II of Mulryne, Watanbe-O’Kelly and Shewring’s Europa Triumphans, a collection of studies of European court and civic festivals in the period.
Rangström describes the decking out of Stockholm with triumphal arches, tapestries, a firework display and even a wine fountain. The 560-strong procession, which included 100 nobles on horseback and 80 more horses led in hand, culminated at the tilt yard in the riding school at the Hay Market or Hötorget. It was meant to depict the young Karl as a force for unity in Europe against the Turk, and so he led the “Roman” quadrille, Field Marshall Gustaf Banér the “Turks” in their caftans, Count Bengt Oxenstierna led the “Poles” (see their “winged horses” below) and Privy Councillor Krister Horn was captain of the “European States” in modern dress. Here are images of the quadrilles:

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Karl as a Roman. Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.


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The “Turkish” horses in the Certamen Equestre, via Gallica. It looks as though all the Black grooms in Stockholm were drafted in to add extra “exotica” (oof).


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“Polish” horses, Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.


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“Europe” in the Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.

It was – of course – spectacular. “On knights and horses everything shimmered: gold, precious stones, and rich pearls,” says one account, and, “On the horses, one saw different ornaments on their heads, different ones on their feet, and different ones on the other parts of their bodies.” Pine branches hung from the ceiling and the riding school was lit by thousands of candles on hundreds of chandeliers against the dark Stockholm winter.
There was only one game – running at the ring – and the King won, for:

“None deserved it more, none knew how to control and turn his horse with such gentleness; nobody bore off the ring with such pleasing gestures and such grace of the whole body.”

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For other long-haired horses stories, I present the eighteenth century Swan of Arnstadt and a nineteenth-century freak, The Wild King of Oregon Wonder Horses.

Who is the woman in Sir Edwin Landseer’s The Shrew Tamed?

The more I’ve learned about research over the last decade, the more I’ve realised how easy it is to slip up. I’ve seen how one writer’s creative suggestion becomes “fact” in the next book down the line, and I’ve made that mistake myself. I’ve also endeavoured, when possible, to have the issues corrected in reprints. These tiny gaffes are often a matter of elision that results in misreading. Take the discussion surrounding Sir Edwin Landseer’s famous 1861 painting, The Shrew Tamed.

Several authorities claim that the woman in the painting is Skittles, aka Catherine Walters, the beautiful courtesan and queen of the “pretty horsebreakers” as the demi-mondaines who rode and drove in Hyde Park among the cream of society were known. Indeed, the painting is also known as “The Pretty Horsebreaker”. Writers are correct in claiming that Landseer’s painting stirred up contemporary anxieties as to whether these elegant young women were not only leading young men astray, but also respectable young women and even their mothers, eager to make their daughters more marriageable through imitation of these glamorous figures. Indeed, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine wrote at the time: “We hope it will now be felt by Sir Edwin Landseer and his friends that the intrusion of ‘pretty-horse-breakers’ on the walls of the Academy is not less to be regretted than their presence in Rotten Row.”

But Landseer did not paint Skittles. He painted another equestrienne who has appeared again and again in my research concerning the pretty horsebreakers, and who fascinates me although no one has yet written her biography. Her name is Annie Gilbert and it is not clear whether she was a courtesan or not. She was a professional horsewoman, skirting the line of respectability by a) earning her own living, b) doing so riding horses and c) occasionally working as an artist’s model. Here’s the London Daily News‘ review of Landseer’s painting when it was unveiled at the Royal Academy in 1861:

“‘The Shrew Tamed’ (135), by Sir Edwin Landseer, displays perhaps more real power than the large and ambitious work of last year. This picture has been painted, we hear, in compliment to Miss Gilbert, the accomplished horsewoman who has so thoroughly mastered Mr Rarey’s system of horse-taming as to have practised it herself with perfect success. A vicious thoroughbred mare has had, as we see from the strap now thrown aside, its leg bound up, and after a struggle to which the condition of the straw bears witness, lies thrown. The ‘shrew’ is at length so entirely subdued that she now permits her mistress to recline at full length on her shoulder, and even advances her muzzle at the patting of the small fair hand, as if begging for a caress to seal a better understanding for the future. Sir Edwin has indicated the extinction of fire in the mare’s eye too strongly; the result is the poor creature looks wall-eyed. The lady’s self-possession and saucily assumed air of conqueror are highly amusing. A spacial at a safe distance, high up on the trusses of straw, seems to enjoy his mistress’s triumph. The drawing of the mare and the subtle metallic changefulness of her colouring of her sleek hind quarters are most masterly, though the texture of her coat is too satiny. The execution is throughout of the most daring kind: the straw in particular, though extremely sketchy, is so suggestive as to perfectly satisfy the eye.”

Annie’s role is confirmed by Royal Academy documents quoted in a 2009 Oxford Art Journal article by Pamela Fletcher called “Narrative Painting and Visual Gossip at the Early-Twentieth-Century Royal Academy”. She also appears in William Powell’s Frith’s “The Derby Day” panorama. The London Look: Fashion from Street to Catwalk by Christopher Breward, Edwina Ehrman and Caroline Evans describes her as “beautiful, witty and consumptive”. She was tough enough to ride for hours with the Queen’s Hounds, whose master approved of few “Dianas” but allowed for her “cheerful spirit and dashing riding” (quoted in The Queen’s Hounds and Stag-Hunting Recollections by Thomas Lister, page 73).

Extracts from some of Landseer’s letters at the time suggest a woman at ease in male company:

“Do tell me talking of neighbours — if you will let me have your carriage one night to take Annie G. to the play (with her sister) and will you give Hills leave to receive them at 1 5 L. P. afterwards? for a glass of soda water? — A. G. has no end of lovers, but seems to patronize me! I suppose she thinks my Picture will be a trump card for her. She has got a little too fat in some places — she says if I finish the Picture and people rave about it she will richly reward me! I am trying to do things soberly.” (December 1858 to Jacob Bell)

“Annie Gilbert has had a fall Hunting — but is not much the worse — I hope soon to finish the group in which she is no. 1 copper bottomed. She had a party the other Eve her Birthday & asked me — the lot were rather too fast for me sober as I have become & I did not go.” (another letter to Bell, both quoted in Sir Edwin Landseer, by Richard Ormond.)

I don’t know what happened to Annie or where she came from – another of those lines of research which will have to wait till I win the lottery – but I hope I’ve marked out a little corner of the internet for her, and possibly inspired other researchers to discover more.

Today I saw a ghost…

In 2006 Germany experienced World Cup fever. Berlin was hosting the football championships and every cafe, bar and restaurant showed the matches on giant TV screens. Round about that time, in a city already full of street art, the work of a new artist caught my eye. They were stencilling hoofprints onto the pavements.

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I set up a blog to document them and a Google Map. I found that road railings had been painted red and white like showjumps, with evergreen trees cycle-locked to each side. The hoofprints would approach them then “jump” the rails and disappear. Some street events full of prancing people pretending to be on horseback were staged, though sadly I missed them. I found them in other cities and other countries too – people started to send me photos of them.

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At the time I had no idea how to begin what would become If Wishes Were Horses. It was a very academic text, short on life. The book was born the moment I realised that the graffiti was part of it. Shortly after I finished the book I found an interview with the artist, who said she began the work because she felt that while male sporting passions were celebrated by the World Cup, women’s equally great passion for sports was often belittled. So she covered the city with imaginary horses.

It’s over a decade since I started collecting the hoofprints. Today I saw one I’d never spotted before and which must be one of the last survivors. The ghost print is on the edge of the pond in the Weinbergsweg park in Mitte. A cross country water feature for Berlin’s imaginary herd? Here it is modelled by Otto the dachshund.

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East Berlin’s surfaces are pied with graffiti: spray-painted ‘tags’; paper cut-outs gummed in peeling layers of palimpsest; stencils of hand grenades, bananas, political slogans and dachshunds; giant murals by professional street artists that cover five-storey fire walls. Walking through the same district every day, you notice fresh ones as you might clock a new species of flower emerging from the ground, or tune into a different birdsong <use normal spaced en dash throughout>— a kind of urban nature trail that changes with the seasons. Because I never saw any artist at work, the images seemed to sprout from nowhere, a little bit of subconscious bubbling up to the surface like a rash or a dream.

The hoofs were new.

I first saw them on Kastanienalle — Horse Chestnut Avenue. A trail of white hoof prints the width of my spread hands appeared next to the pavement and walked across the pedestrian crossing. Someone had meticulously cut out the stencils and made their way across the road, spraying one, then another, in a pattern I recognized as a walk: the two left hooves struck the ground close together, the two right hoof prints were spaced wide. One, two, three, four. An invisible pony. When it reached the kerb, it vanished.

A little while later I found a second set, which sauntered across the road at Veteranenstrasse and marched up to a mysterious ‘Equine Institute’, where a bridle hung in the window. There the invisible horse planted its front hooves squarely on the doorstep, as though peering in. A third horse walked clean across the middle of a busy junction outside a police station. Up by the Mauerpark there was a fourth set, which approached the metal railings by the road. A section of the railings had been painted in red-and-white stripes like showjumping poles, and chipboard ‘wings’ had been strapped to the sides. As a finishing touch, two evergreen plants in pots had been placed on either side and fixed to the rails with bicycle locks. The invisible pony cleared the showjump and clattered off across two lanes of traffic and a tramline into the park, where it appeared and disappeared, walking the length of an old stretch of the Wall.

After that it was as though the pony were everywhere, or he had a herd of friends trotting around Berlin at night, always just round the corner, always after I was asleep. I began to look out for the pony every day, to see what he’d been up to the night before. He’d make skittish circles outside a coffee shop, or hobble across Stargarderstrasse like a deer with all four legs roped together.

I couldn’t predict where he would appear next, so I just had to go out and walk, covering miles of Berlin’s broad, grey pavements in the pursuit of the invisible ponies. My friends reported sightings, which I mapped. One horse crossed through the dingy, red-brick cloisters of the Oberbaum bridge, which linked Friedrichshain in the east to Kreuzberg in the west, while another pranced down the red carpet before the stars at the Berlinale. A third pegged across Alexanderplatz and a fourth propped up the counter at a sausage stand, resting one hind hoof.

It was as though a herd of those elusive, magical horses from the pony books I’d read in my childhood had somehow slipped through into my grown-up, urban life. Now they flickered in and out of view, for ever on the next page, like the mysterious Water Horse in Patricia Leitch’s The Black Loch, which surges out of a dark lake at midnight, or golden Flicka, always disappearing over the Wyoming hills, escaping the whirl of a lasso. The spray-painted spoor was the only clue that they had been there.

One night, on the trail of a set of hoof prints on Christinenstrasse, I passed an empty office filled with blue light. There, behind dirty windows and under a bare wire that dangled from the ceiling, was a life-size model of a black horse, who looked out into the street with ears pricked. Behind the rain-streaked glass he seemed absolutely real. I thought he might flare his nostrils and sigh, his sides rising and falling, then turn back to pace the room.

“He had survived.” Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse

coverThe horse on the cover of Ulrich Raulff’s impressive new book is soaring, bridleless, riderless and all but headless. It has the fuzziness of distance but also the heft and hairiness of life; it is both figurative and real. In tracing our extended exit from the long 19th century, when horses powered nations and shaped the way we thought, Farewell to the Horse attempts to ride both these steeds. Equus caballus is, Raulff explains, a ‘living metaphor’ that can ‘carry not only humans and other loads, but also abstract signs and symbols’ and has ‘more meanings than bones’. When we unharnessed the horse from our omnibuses and ploughs and replaced it with trains and tractors, we lost not just horse power but one of the life forces of Western thought as well.

My thoughts on Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse for the Literary Review.

The Transit of Hermes Has Begun

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Good luck to long riders Tina Boche, Peter van der Gugten, Zsolt Szabo, and David Wewetzer who have embarked with their Criollo, Haflinger, Kabardin and Karabakh horses and a stallion called Hermes on a ride across Europe organised by artist Ross Birrell. Their journey from Athens to Kassel is an artwork called The Transit of Hermes for, well, the Greek god, but also Hermes the stallion, who is a rare Greek breed called an Arravani. documenta 14 are tracking their progress:

Hermes, then, is a courier, an intermediary, an animal envoy, an angel messenger. But the destination of his message (whatever it may be) is not Kassel. Neither is Athens its point of departure. It is in the relay, in the coexistence of companions: the community of riders and horses who, through the project of the ride, embody “the movement that transports… not toward another thing or another place, but towards its own taking place.”

The Horse Ghosts of East London

I had some time to kill near Liverpool Street Station in London yesterday and remembered a quest I’d started to put together earlier this year, before it was cut short by health problems. In The Age of the Horse I’ve tried to write a sweeping, single-take overview of all the ways in which horses powered Britain in the nineteenth century. While some, like this cartoonist, thought that the advent of the railways would put the horse out of work,* in fact we used more horses than ever before once the tracks were laid (and how were they laid? Using horse power). More goods and people were in circulation thanks to the steam engine, and so more horses were needed to carry them to and fro from the stations.

The railway firms owned huge numbers of horses, and of course they had to be stabled near the stations and yards in the very centre of towns. These stables  were impressive but functional buildings, and many of them are still standing in London. Yesterday I visited just one of them.

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These are the former stables of the Great Eastern Railway on Quaker Street. Now known as Silwex House, it was until recently packed with artists, but now they have been cleared out, and according to Spitalfields Life, a Travel Lodge will move in. I did try the chipboard panel that had been nailed over the door by developers, but couldn’t get in. Someone else had had a good go at hacking through it. I’d read that the building still contains elevators for the horses – presumably carrying them up to the level of the raised abandoned railway just behind the building, although I couldn’t see a structure linking the stables to the viaduct.

If Travel Lodge get their way, three floors will be added, along with 250 bedrooms. English Heritage, The Victorian Society and The Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust are objecting. Over the road, I found some street art showing the artist-horses running away from the police.

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And just around the corner was what looked like another stencil of a workhorse:

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On my way there I walked past the Bishopsgate Institute, where, according to the invaluable Spitalfields Life, the floor of a nineteenth-century livery stables can still be found intact – plus horse pee – in the cellars. Click through for images of the buildings, past and present.

I hope to visit the other old stable buildings in the future before they vanish, and to see what ghosts are left of the horses that made the city great.

 

* it did indeed make the coach horse all but obsolete – you can see the coachman in his distinctive coat bemoaning his lot on the right of the picture.