By Brooke Chilvers
The National Sporting Library & Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, has extended its two-floor exhibition on the steeplechase in art until March 21, 2021.
Now that we are twice-vaccinated and the NSLM limits the number of visitors with online reservations, it felt comfortable to be back indoors looking at great art. In fact, we had the entire wonderful space to ourselves for nearly an hour.
The Thrill of the ’Chace (archaic spelling) is a rare opportunity to explore the evolution of how this 250-year-old sport is depicted over different periods by a range of French, British, and American sporting artists. The origins of steeplechasing can be traced back to Ireland’s “pounding matches” where two riders race like crazy, jumping a string of natural obstacles until one competitor gives up or is dismounted.
Starting with George Stubbs (1724–1806), until Eadweard Muybridge’s stop-action photos were published in his books, Animal Locomotion (1887) and Animals in Motion (1899), one-thousand-pound racing horses were represented frozen in air at various stages of a critical leap or flat-out gallop in a characteristic “rocking horse” or “flying gallop” pose. The loose naturalism of a Peter Curling (British, b. 1955) in Point-to-Point was still in the future. (In the UK, point-to-point races during the non-hunting season feature amateur riders on foxhunting horses.)
For enthusiasts of sporting prints, the exhibit offers the original oils and watercolors of several four-scene sporting sets by Henry Thomas Alken (1785–1851). Scenes from a Steeplechase or A Steeplechase at Market Harborough, Leicestershire show mid-19th century “tack and turnout” as the horses and jockeys take a ditch, jump an ox-fence, clear a brook or muddy lane, and endure the inevitable brutal tumbling fall.
The French version of Course au Clocher, as depicted by Eugene Louis Lami (1800–1890) in the six-set Steeplechase at Raincy, is much more constrained and “continental.” The artist’s fine touch with pen and ink, watercolors, and gouache renders the aristocratic event even more elegant.
By contract, American steeplechase, or timber racing, is associated with the traditions of the Maryland Hunt Cup, first run in 1894, or the Virginia Gold Cup that started in 1924. Given the company Paul Mellon kept, it’s not surprising that he became interested in steeplechase horses and flat racing. In 1936, he had Franklin Brooke Voss (1880–1953), the favored sporting artist of many a Whitney and Vanderbilt, paint his horses, Sea Chief, as well as Welbourne Jake (winner of three timber races in a row) that he bought from thoroughbred breeder Marion duPont Scott. Voss, himself an amateur rider and foxhunter, also famously portrayed several of the greatest racehorses of all time, including Seabiscuit and Man o’ War. His Peacock with Anderson Fowle, also on display, captures the serene spirit and cross-country landscapes of East Coast races.
American artist and foxhunter Henry Koehler (1927–2018) is known especially for his portraits of well-known polo ponies and behind-the-scenes minglings of horses, jockeys, and dogs that give off “the flavor, sound and smell of polo.” But his 1976 painting, Fontwell Starter, takes place in the West Sussex Racecourse, where Queen Elizabeth II had her first win as a racehorse owner in 1949.
To get a taste of the exhibit, or purchase the catalog, go online to www.nationalsporting.org and make a virtual visit to William Smithson Broadhead’s (1888–1960) painting of Man o’ War’s son, Battleship, the only thoroughbred racehorse to win both the American Grand National and England’s Grand National, pictured at duPont Scott’s Montpelier estate, the former Virginia home of America’s fourth president, James Madison.
The town of Middleburg, in any case, is always worth the detour. There are plenty of nice restaurants and attractive boutiques, and the National Sporting Library & Museum always has an exhibit worth seeing.
Brooke Chilvers and her husband, Rudy, enjoyed their first martini & oyster lunch in over a year at Middleburg’s King Street Oyster Bar. “It’s too difficult to decide between the two good Thai restaurants in town, so we keep returning to the same place.”