The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot


Rearing to go: Laetitia, Lady Lade, 1793 by George Stubbs: ‘a fantastic glorification of horsewomanship’. Photograph: The Royal Collection


The British Museum is a most distinguished and well-stocked stable. You walk into its Great Court and at once spot the emperor Hadrian, mounted on his stone steed, legs dangling, just beyond the information desk. And this is before you’ve even set foot in the museum’s tremendous exhibition – its first devoted to the horse. It’s the perfect moment for a celebration. The idea of the horse show was raised in the 90s but has had to wait for the Olympics to give it an extra leg-up. War Horse, in all its manifestations, has contributed extra enthusiasm, and there is a third and royal reason for equine rejoicing: the exhibition is a diamond jubilee gift to the Queen.

John Curtis, one of the curators, explains that there has been much advance interest in the show. Horses, magnificently wordless in themselves, excite passionate differences of opinion in their admirers and the museum has been petitioned, urging that certain breeds be championed. But the museum has faced a challenge: “Most of our exhibitions are monocultural, whereas the horse exists in all cultures.” And so partly to avoid a bewildering miscellany, the decision has been taken to put Arab horses in charge of the narrative.

The domestication of the horse is thought to have taken place on the western Euraisan steppes, probably in Kazakhstan, around 3,500BC (the exhibition includes what may be the earliest depiction of a horse and rider, a terracotta mound from Mesopotamia). But the narrative then advances through Islamic history and showcases the emergence of the Arab horse.

It reveals that the bloodlines of modern thoroughbreds can be traced back to three Arabian stallions imported into England in the 18th century (the Darley Arabian, the Byerley Turk and the Godolphin Arabian). The journey we take includes astounding Arab rock paintings of horses and then fetches up in Victorian England to consider the horse’s influence on society (the horse traffic jams were terrible), before a racy finish at Ascot and in the modern world.

But we begin by putting the cart – or chariot – before the horse. The first room contains a most enigmatic treasure: the Standard of Ur, a tapered box (2600BC Sumerian) inlaid with a beautiful mosaic of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone. No one knows what its purpose was but it seems extraordinary that its donkeys – yoked into service before the horse – with heads of fragile shell have survived and are still pulling unwieldy chariots that look disconcertingly like heavy brown prams.

The same room also contains a stunning black-and-white film of Arab horses placed alongside a fragment of an Assyrian 9th-century BC limestone relief. You look from three proud profiles in stone to the Arab horses on film and time becomes thrillingly fused, measured only by the unchanging outline of the horse.

The museum has been hard at work. There’s an incredible reconstruction of an Assyrian chariot horse, its harness assembled in fragments – an academic ransacking of the British Museum’s tack room. The stone blinkers appear alarmingly heavy. A second formidable warhorse wears late 15th-century Turkish armour and a third sports cheerful, quilted patchwork from 19th-century Sudan.

The exhibition reminds us that the horse is an object of decoration as well as a subject. A chic Egyptian wig-curler (c 1500-1000BC) features a rider and galloping horse – a touch of serpent in its bronze form. And most decorative of all are the exquisitely dainty and diminutive gold chariots (5th-4th century BC from Persia) with filigree reins – a fairy tale earthed in reality: the horses’ tails tied in mud knots. And I also admired the 16th-century Turkish stirrups: black iron garlanded with golden flowers. They seem, centuries later, to be haunted by the riders who once put their feet in them.

There is a marvellous sense throughout of riding being celebrated. There’s a captivating Indian watercolour (1650-1750), starring Akbar the Great out hunting, bent forward on his horse, with swirling deer around him, as if an eager gale were blowing through the picture. The poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, quoted in the exhibition’s superb catalogue, seems to speak for Akbar and riders like him. In his poem St Valentine’s Day he reveals that, for him, riding brought about glorious delusion: “My horse a thing of wings, myself a god.”

It is Wilfrid Blunt and his wife, Lady Anne, who serve as a bridging device here, bringing the narrative to 19th-century England. They were a remarkable couple, staunch travellers with a passion for Arabia and a mission to preserve the integrity of the Arab horse. They imported horses to Crabbet Park, their West Sussex stud, and there is a priceless photograph of Lady Anne there, in full Arabian regalia, with her mare Kasida. You would laugh were it not for the fact that the woman and horse have a solemn affinity. The story of the Blunts is fascinating (although too complex to relate here). Suffice it to say, the love affair with the horse went better than the marriage.

Only one horsewoman trumps Lady Anne Blunt: Lady Lade. The exhibition would not be complete without George Stubbs, and there are two stupendous portraits here. Lady Lade, or Laetitia, was the mistress of a highwayman and went on to marry a racehorse owner – perhaps this is how she learned to ride. In Laetitia, Lady Lade (1793), she sits on a rearing horse, comically unmoved, the folds of her long blue dress undisturbed. She seems in another world, with an unruffled, crepuscular park behind her. It’s a fantastic glorification of horsewomanship. In Gimcrack With John Pratt Up on Newmarket Heath (c1765), there is a similar stillness to the landscape. Another perfect day, but the jockey is inward, the horse’s liquid eye shows apprehension – anything could happen.

Towards the end of the exhibition, Cymbeline’s famous cry: “O, for a horse with wings!” is up on one of the walls. Yet the final room persuades us in photographs and films of some of the greatest competitive horses and riders alive, including the Queen’s horse Free Agent who won at Ascot in 2008, that wings were never necessary.



By Kate Kellaway