Category Archives: Legendary horses

Meeting Whistlejacket and Eclipse

“All done from nature” 

George Stubbs (1724-1806) himself wrote this sentence on the title page of his work The Anatomy of the Horse (1759).  Most people know Stubbs as the artist who painted the most famous horses of his day for the British elite of the racecourse, but when you visit the current exhibition at the Milton Keynes Gallery, which will also be held at the Mauritshuis later this year, you learn that Stubbs was a more versatile artist. 

The Anatomy of the Horse

From a young age Stubbs knew he wanted to be a painter and dreamed of being an academician (Royal Academy of Arts). Tradition dictated that he would then have to visit Italy to learn about and from the classical forms of art, Roman and Greek.  He traveled to Rome in the year 1754 and was already back in England by the end of 1755. Stubbs himself recalled that he often differed from his peers in their opinions of old master paintings, probably due to the fact that he thought “nature always superior to art, whether it be Greek or Roman”.  

Back in England he plunged himself back in his passion for anatomy. Stubbs resided in Lincolnshire from 1756 – 1758, where he spent his time dissecting horses to draw them for his The Anatomy of the Horse which was to be published the following year when he moved to London. In the capital he was introduced to his patrons who would commission at least one third of the work he would produce in his lifetime, the prince of Wales himself commissioned nineteen works in the 1790’s. 

A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Servants

But is its questionable whether Stubbs can be seen as part of the aristocratic horse world of his time. It is often said that Stubbs must have loved horses because he painted so many, especially commissions suggest that he was the go to man if one wanted his horse painted. The title of the current exhibition will change when it moves to the Mauritshuis; “The Man, the Horse, The Obsession”, making one feel that Stubbs was obsessed with horses.  He however lived in a time where horses were still part of daily life as a mode of transport as well as an important supportive source of working power. But I have not yet found out if he owned horses himself for either transport or leisure. In his own time Stubbs was famous for depicting animals that were new and exotic to the British public. He was able to paint leopards, eagles, wolves, bears, and much more because many of his patrons owned menageries that functioned as private zoo’s. Of course there was also the public menagerie at the Tower of London where the crowd could see tigers, lions and monkeys. 

In 1763 Stubbs chose to exhibit The Queen’s She’ass (now called Zebra) at the Society of Artists, where he was  a member and eventually took on the role of president in 1772-1773. His painting of a zebra looking quite lost under the trees of a presumably English forest was not a commission.  The subject of the painting was the first ever zebra to voyage to England and became known after having been presented to Queen Charlotte in 1762. It was brought over from Cape of Good Hope, South Africa by Sir Thomas Adams who was the commander of the H.M.S. Terpsichore. He loaded a couple of zebra’s onto his ship but the male did not survive the journey. The female was kept in a paddock at Buckingham gate where the public could see her, drawing such large crowds that extra guards had to be placed to keep it safe, especially at night. Stubbs may have been among the public when he was painting his Zebra, and for unknown reason it is one of the few works that remained in Stubbs own possession until his death in 1806. 

For thirteen years Stubbs exhibited annually at the Society where he showed 35 pictures between 1761-1774, of which nearly half of the works were concerned with ‘wild’ animals instead of horses. In 1775 he switched his allegiance from the Society to the Royal Academy of Arts, getting closer to fulfilling his dream of becoming an academician. In November 1780 he was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy.  In the February 1781 election of full Royal Academicians Stubbs was favoured by the majority.  The only thing left to do was to hand in a work of art presented to the academy that would be his Diploma Work in order to receive the diploma signed by the King. In December of the same year a new rule was imposed stating that every RA elect had to hand in the diploma work within one year of election, and sadly this meant that Stubbs was now too late as he had failed to deliver. In the following years Stubbs did not exhibit annually with the Academy due to anger over not being a full Academician as well as disputes over his works he chose to be shown not being exhibited. Over the years Stubbs exhibited more dogs than horses at the Royal Academy, which can be seen as more evidence for critic Geoffrey Grigson (1940) who asserted that “Horse painter .. is not the right description for him at all. He was a painter who painted horses”. 

Whistejacket and myself for scale

It has been suggested that Stubbs did not love horses or the equestrian circles that he is often said to have been part of. His extraordinary talent to observe and depict nature in the most realistic way made him a favourite by those who wanted their exotic and precious animals depicted. Stubbs however did not always comply; his most famous work, Whistlejacket (1762) was commissioned by the earl of Rockingham as a portret of George III. Rockingham intended the horse to be done by Stubbs, the portrait by Reynolds and the landscape by yet another artist.  When he saw the horse on the canvas he decided to leave it without a background, the lacking of the portrait of the king is most possibly due to Rockingham’s resignation as Prime Minister in 1762. 

Another example of Stubbs work not living up to the expectation of his patron is that which critics call his greatest painting ever; Hambletonian, rubbing down (1800). Sir Henry Vane-Tempest’s Hambletonian defeated Diamond at Newmarket and he commissioned two paintings, one of Hambletonian winning the race and one of him after the race. It is unknown if Stubbs ever produced the first one, but the second shows a horse that is nervous, exhausted and features a trainer and groom that angrily look at the viewer as if the public does not feel enough empathy for the horse.  Vane-Tempest took Stubbs to court because he refused to pay for this painting, which can be seen as Stubbs’ criticism on the industry. 

The greatest painter of racehorses did not like horse racing. The antipathy was part of his greatness.” – Nicholas Clee

Horse devoured by a lion (1763)

Stubbs his work offers us a good view of his time, during which the role of the horse in society was changing as equestrian sports were becoming more popular in the mid 1700’s. The English Thoroughbred was a new breed that was only about fifty years old when Stubbs was alive and just as the newly acquired exotic animals, a symbol of empire and English superiority. For over thirty years Stubbs kept returning to his series of lions attacking horses. Although he himself was not impressed by what he saw in Italy, the model of a lion sinking its teeth into a horse went back into antiquity as Stubbs possibly saw an early Hellenistic sculpture of a lion attacking a horse in the Palazzo dei Conservatori when he was in Rome. Robin Blake has argued that Stubbs exhibited a political point supporting the Rockingham Whigs, showing the white horse, a symbol of Hanover, being attacked by the lion of England.  

For the first time in history Stubbs work is being accompanied by the skeleton of Eclipse (1764-1789) whom he painted four times. Eclipse remained undefeated at the races and is often called the father of all Thoroughbreds as he features in the majority of todays racehorse pedigrees. It was an honour to meet this English historical icon together with Whistlejacket and I can recommend everyone with an interest in horses and art to visit the exhibition for the detail and colour of Stubbs work is truly astonishing!

Eclipse (d.1789) with his portrait by Stubbs

A Famous Desert horse from California

In November 2018 one of my many dreams came true. The opportunity to speak at the inaugural conference of the Equine History Collective also resulted in the long dreamed of visit to the Kellogg Arabian horse library and the W.K. Kellogg Arabian horse center in Pomona, California.  Most Arabian horse enthusiasts will have heard of the breeding program and the library but in general people know of this place because of one single horse: Jadaan (1916). The stallion that Rudolph Valentino rode in the 1926 movie The son of the Sheikh.

It was absolutely wonderful to learn about the story of this stallion during the conference, as several paper presentations included details about him. If you are not very familiar with his story you can read a bit more here.

The fact that the Kellogg Arabian horse library holds the saddle of  Jadaan made history tangible to me. It was very special to see how they created the supposedly Arab costume for the horse, while Valentino himself tried to distance himself a bit from the general stereotype of the Arab. It was an excellent illustration to the core argument of my own paper presentation: that the concept of the Arabian horse is heavily entangled in Orientalist culture production. Nevertheless, as an Arabian horse enthusiast myself, I was delighted to learn more about this exceptional stallion, who apparently drew thousands of visitors to his box at the Kellogg Ranch until his death in 1945.

A day after the conference, while roaming around Los Angeles with one of my fabulous hosts and dear friend  Dr. Kathryn Renton, we wandered into the Hollywood Forever cemetery and discovered that Jadaan’s influence on my trip to California wasn’t over yet. This cemetery is the final resting place of his rider! And the kisses on the plaque with Valentino’s name show that their legacy is ever present!

I choose to highlight Jadaan’s story here because perhaps we can see him as a famous desert horse as he was often pictured in the desert with Valentino.  But the Equine History Collective conference was full of amazing people who presented extremely well put together papers about horses and #Burro’s. Many of them about Arabian individuals as well. I was very impressed and please with the quality of the entire event and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire 10 days I spent in California. Many special thanks to Katrin Boniface for also hosting me and making it all possible for me!

As said, the visit to the Kellogg Arabian horse library and W.K. Arabian Horse Center was very special to me. Researching parts of the history of the Arabian horse, I had been dreaming of visiting the only Arabian Horse library in the world. And it was absolutely fabulous and everything that I had hoped for. I discovered a few very interesting things in the titles they pulled out for me and I felt like a little child in a candyshop. So much material! Now I can only dream of being able to visit once more in the future to continue the adventure of discovery.

Another person making my trip even more special was Jéanne Brooks, director of the W.K.Kellogg Arabian Horse Center.  Not only was I honoured to be part of the panel that she chaired during the conference, she also made my visit to the center one to never forget; I got to meet CP Khavalier (out of a Monogramm daughter)! She explained to us that they are still breeding according to the guidelines set out for them in the will of the late W.K. Kellogg.  Due to the bad weather in the days before the conference the Sunday show at the center had to be cancelled, but the chance to take a picture with a Kellogg Arabian made up for it!

Many thanks to everyone involved in the conference, my hosts, tour guides, roommate, fellow presenters and so many more! Many thanks to my academic buddies from across the world (you know who you are 😀 ) and all my other supporters, you all have made sure that my trip to California was a tremendous success!


The Bloody Shouldered Pegasus

Of the many legends told about the Arabian horse, that of the Bloody Shoulder is one of the most popular. At least, that’s the case in the West, because to date I have found no Arabic version of it. While this color mutation can happen in any type of horse (and appears in various coat colors) it is frequently seen in grey Arabian horses, thus providing the fuel that keeps the legend burning brightly. Like so many other stories, this one is also set in an unspecified time amongst the Bedouin and within the space of the desert, all concepts perceived as being closely connected to the identity of the Arabian horse.  On closer inspection of this legend, it’s still not immediately clear precisely how the tale of the Bloody Shoulder should have become so firmly established and so popular amongst today’s Arabian horse community.

The modern version of the story of the bloody shoulder appears to date back no further than 1982. In this tale, which first appeared in print in Arabian Horse World, a Bedouin chieftain is surprised by a group of robbers while riding on his mare through the desert. The robbers open fire and although his mare runs for their lives, a bullet pierces the heart of her rider, causing him to slump forward onto her shoulder and neck. The mare keeps going and doesn’t stop until she has returned her master to the camp they call home. There, his people take his lifeless body off her back to discover a large bloodstain that has dried on her shoulder. That same night the mare foals a colt who has the same mark on his shoulder as his dam, and ever since it is believed that every horse carrying a bloodlike stain on its shoulder descends from that very brave mare.

Although it is not possible to pinpoint the exact source of the legend, the story itself resembles that of a very old Shia Islamic ritual that is still found today: the mourning of the death of Hussayn ibn Ali on the Day of Ashura. Commemorated primarily among Shia Muslims in India and Pakistan, the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson is mourned during processions that include a horse. Mostly white horses are used, to represent the grey stallion that is said to have carried the wounded Imam Hussayn away from the battlefield and back to his camp. Another striking similarity to the story of the Bloody Shoulder is the fact that the rider, in this case Hussayn, was also shot in the heart, causing him to fall forward on his horse.  During processions, the horses are smeared with red paint to look as though a rider has bled on them and often wear sheets with arrows attached, to emphasize the bravery of the horse that brought its rider home despite the rain of arrows or, in the case of the modern legend, bullets.

Whilst there are different versions of the role that the horse played during and after the death of Hussayn, the horse is always hailed as a hero, much like the horse in the legend of the Bloodied Shoulder.  Maymun, Hussayn’s grey stallion, is praised so highly that he even receives a new name; Dhu al Janah, Owner of Wings. Not only is he celebrated by poets and in processions, some rumors even try to connect the winged horse to Prophet Muhammad himself, claiming that he was in fact the stallion al Murtajiz. This horse is said to have sat down to let Hussayn mount him as a child, a detail returning in the Dhu al Janah tradition where the stallion lowered himself to gently release the wounded or slain Hussayn from his back. Although it’s very appealing to believe that the two horses were one and the same, al Murtajiz would have had to be at least 54 years of age at the battle of Karbala, after which Hussayn passed away.

Because of the similarity of the two tales, it might be possible that one derived from the other; and the introduction of the story into at least the English language may have focussed on one special horse: the Bloody Shouldered Arabian, a stallion imported into England in 1719/20 from Aleppo. Was this then the colt who provided the inspiration for the modern legend?  On the one hand it doesn’t seem very plausible, as in a letter from Nathanial Harley, who shipped the horse to his brother Edward Harley, it is explained that the stain on the horse was “red as blood” when he bought him,but faded as he aged. But, on the other hand, the story may have boosted interest in the stallion among other breeders in Britain.

The first lead in English literature to the story of Hussayn’s death I found in the work of historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). It surprised me how his lifespan so closely paralleled that of Shia poet Hassan al Damastani (d. 1759), who wrote a poem about the battle of Karbala, titled Dhu al Janah.  Gibbon does not mention any horse in his version of the tale but refers to his source: Simon Ockley (1678-1720). Although Ockley does not pay special attention to the character or name of the horse in his very long description, he may have been the one to transfer the story into the world of Arabian horse breeders as he exchanged letters (1714) with Lord Harley, the last owner of the Bloody Shouldered Arabian.

Perhaps the one is not the source of the other, but both stories are legendary, adapted to early modern orientalism; in the latter, modern version, the horse became a mare to fit the romantic image of Arabs and the Bedouin, and perhaps also to insinuate in some way that the stallion was in fact the colt born to the mare.

While it is not absolutely certain whether or not the two stories – that of the Bloody Shouldered Arabian and the heroic horse with wings – are indeed connected, it is certainly a possibility. Both these legendary tales are known in several different versions and the horse in question is celebrated. Furthermore, it is very interesting that Hussayn’s horse is now known as Dhu al Janah rather than Maymun. The idea of giving the horse wings may be related to the important position Hussayn holds within Shia Islam, much like the mystical creature Al Buraq that Prophet Muhammad rode during his visit to the heavens. Although Al Buraq is not a horse but composed of various animals, he is usually depicted as at least part horse and having wings.

Assuming it was understood that Dhu al Janah also had a mystical aspect to his being, it is possible that the story of the Bloodied Shoulder was regarded in similar fashion. The legend was then perhaps adapted to a more tangible and appealing setting for the interested European public, a Bedouin Arabia, possibly to help promote the stallion with the bloodmark on his shoulder.  In order to further convince the public, the role of the hero was now shifted from stallion to mare because the Orientalists had met Bedouin with a tradition of riding mares into battle.  If the legend was to help promote the stallion it may have also helped people overcome the fact that he had a “strange” color and was somewhat odd, not fitting in with existing views on attractiveness in horses.