Monday, 12 September 2016






In this, the tenth in my series on equestrian art, I look at another painting I love. It will be familiar to many, since it was painted by no lesser personage than Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). An oil on canvas, it measures 89” x 102¼” (7’5” x 8’6¼”) or 226 x 261 cm and hangs in the Kuntshalle in Hamburg, Germany.

The portrait, of Renoir’s patron, Madame Darras, was painted in 1873. Madame, a picture of Victorian equestrian gentility in sober-hued riding habit, shirt and tie, is looking somewhat stern as she glances down at her companion, Joseph LeCoeur, on a lively pony. She carries a long whip to replace the absence of the leg on the offside of the horse. I also suspect she may give the pony a tap on the shoulder to remind him of his manners should he attempt to barge in front of her own mount. It is said that when the painting was presented to the Salon jury of 1873, they threw up their hands in horror (perhaps not literally) and refused to accept it. The story goes that Monsieur Darras had foreseen this, saying to Renoir:

“Blue horses! Whoever heard of such a thing?”

Horsewoman in the Bois de Boulogne, Renoir
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This was before the Impressionist Age had truly begun and before that appellation had even been coined. Renoir and Monet were still experimenting with light and colour; this style of painting was quite a shock to the establishment, so it is hardly surprising the picture met with derision.

However, viewing it with a modern eye and loving horses as I do, I can appreciate the skill which has captured the very real blueness that a grey horse’s coat can assume in certain light conditions and from particular angles as well. A grey horse is born dark, sometimes close to black, and the skin is very dark beneath the coat. As the animal ages, the darker hairs (whether ‘dapples’ or merely flecks) lighten until in extreme age the horse becomes white. The pony is a fine example of a dapple-grey, while the horse would appear to be a roan (darker hairs intermingled with the white), although with the tinge of brown on nose and body, it is possible it is a bay that has been clipped out (had the hair removed from its coat to prevent excess sweating). Clipped bays can sometimes appear greyish. Frequently, a dapple-grey will retain his markings on his lower limbs until well into his teens.

One thing I love about the painting is the sheer joy exhibited by both equines. The pony, in particular, is raring to go. His ears are pricked, his head is up and his eyes are bright. He is taking a strong hold on his kind Fulmer snaffle bit, yet his rider is unperturbed by his eagerness and clearly has just checked him back. The boy sits well and is eyeing Madame as if to say, “I’m all right. May we gallop, now?”

By contrast, Madame Darras’ horse is the picture of manners and elegance. The head carriage would not look out of place in a modern dressage arena, while Madame’s hand on the rein is light. The reins of her double bridle loop; there is no tension between the pair. The horse also has its ears pricked and is bounding forward in a springy, willing rhythm. The light catches the gleam of its well-groomed coat and it is evidently a quality animal which receives the best of care. Madame sits proudly on her steed, but if the impression she gives is one of aloofness, bear this in mind. When riding side-saddle, both legs are on the left hand side of the horse. It is therefore essential that the rider sits centrally and erect in the saddle or she will lose her balance. Posture is not just preferable, it is a core requirement of the activity and far more necessary than when riding astride. Madame is the image of a well turned out, skilled equestrienne.

This portrait encapsulates the pleasure of riding for its own sake, the enjoyment derived by both horse and rider when hacking in the countryside. It not only demonstrates the bond between a horseman (or woman) and their steed, it shows how the role of the horse was changing. These two beautiful animals (and mistake me not, little ponies have their own infinite charm!) are not being used for transport, nor for the chase; they are early examples of the horse as a leisure animal, more of a pet than a working beast, and as such, social history at its finest.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

The English Country House...

A Grand Prospect

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, medieval castles and sprawling manor houses evolved into a more formal residence where gardens were laid out in geometric patterns involving strictly linear paths and clipped hedges. Knot gardens and parterres often fronted the large residence, such as at Wilton House in Wiltshire, which was planned to entertain royalty. At Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire, built at the time of Queen Anne, in 1701, the parterre to the side of the house is still immaculately maintained.

Hanbury Hall, Parterre

By the extended Regency period, however, the visitor was likely to approach a country house via a long drive, passing between wrought-iron gates guarded by a lodge, where, no doubt, a lodge-keeper would be on hand to proffer a courteous greeting. The equipage, whether travelling coach or chariot, sporting phaeton or curricle, leisurely barouche or landau, or, indeed, the doctor’s homely gig, would then proceed at a brisk trot through an expansive vista of rolling parkland dotted with ancient oak, horse chestnut and beech trees. Between the gnarled branches covered in lichen, a view of a sparkling lake was almost de rigueur, while various follies and perhaps an ice-house would also be glimpsed in secluded positions around the estate. The periphery of this acreage might be enclosed by carefully crafted iron railings, a high brick wall or even a sweeping stone boundary softened by ribbons of ivy and, in shady spots, the feathery touch of mosses.

At Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, the carriageway (now a tarmac drive) for 'guests from London' snakes across the park to a ‘Triumphal Arch’ or gatehouse, whereby the traveller enters the more formal surroundings of neatly tended shrubs and paths.

On the other hand, at Witley Court in Worcestershire, the now long-gone approach, built by Lord Foley in the seventeenth century, was an ambitious causeway across the lake (the Front Pool), to bring the visitor to the imposing North Front. A painting by Edward Dayes (1763 – 1804) is possibly the only surviving image of this approach, as represented here by a print produced by William Angus (1752 – 1821) in 1810.

Witley Court in Worcestershire, the Seat of Lord Foley
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

This is how the Front Pool looks today. A path follows the dam, to the left of this picture, allowing visitors to walk up to the North Front. What an imposing sight it must have been for those long-ago guests of Lord Foley, to ride in a carriage to this huge mansion!

The church, seen in the upper photo, adjoins the North Front and West Wing, to the right of the lower picture.

In some of the grander establishments, such as at Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, the main carriage drive passes over a humpback bridge, then to afford the visitor a grand vista across the parkland to the even grander house.

Oxford Bridge, Stowe
Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike Licence 2.0
Attribution: Nigel Cox

In all probability, the coachman slowed his horses within sight of this imposing residence, where often the sweeping road forked, one arm leading to a gravelled forecourt in front of the house…

 …while the other arm continued to the sumptuous, pedimented stable block where my lord’s hunters and carriage horses were cared for in palatial stalls by a dozen or more dedicated grooms.

Carriages no longer draw through the gates of the Berrington Hall gatehouse, but the approach to the house is still a pleasing prospect.


Meanwhile, at Brockhampton House in Herefordshire, the drive is a long, gentle curve to the red-brick Georgian mansion…

…and the path to the fifteenth century Manor House at Lower Brockhampton passes beneath a timber-framed gatehouse over a moat.

At Hanbury Hall, you can see where the formal approach once stretched across the park, between an avenue of Cedar trees.

Many large houses had the parkland landscaped in the current vogue, epitomized by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Sir Humphrey Repton, to name but two, in order to provide a grand prospect, both for the visitor on arrival and my lord’s appreciation of his estate. At Brockhampton House, the mansion stands on the top of the hill, overlooking 1,700 acres of parkland, including the ‘Lawn Pool’, an ornamental lake created as a landscape feature and for the family’s recreation, now being carefully managed by the National Trust. It is a very fine prospect indeed.

The landscaper’s intention was to take the eye across sweeping parkland dotted with ‘natural’ groupings of trees to some imposing vista or focal point, such as a monument, folly, pavilion or gothic temple. This Wall Pavilion is at Witley Court, although it wasn’t added until the gardens were redesigned by William Nesfield for the Earl of Dudley between 1854 and 1860.

Below is a ruined ‘temple’ on the Stanford Park estate in Worcestershire.

I hope you have enjoyed this little taste of how the Georgian gentry and nobility instilled an air of majesty into their parks and a sense of awe into their guests. Over the coming months I plan to lead you on a tour of the magnificent buildings their aristocratic owners thus displayed ~ a legacy we are so fortunate to have and should enjoy and appreciate in equal measure.

A rip-roaring hip-hip-hoorah for the National Trust, English Heritage and the other wonderful institutions which do such sterling work in preserving these houses for this and future generations!

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