THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE’S FLYING CHILDERS
One of the most famous racehorses of a generation, this portrait is an oil on canvas, painted by James Seymour (1702 – 1752) circa 1742 and measures 40” x 50” (101.6 x 127 cm). It is part of the Paul Mellon Collection and hangs in the Yale Center for British Art.
|The Duke of Devonshire's Flying Childers|
“About the year 1721, Childers ran a trial against Almanzor and the Duke of Rutland's Brown Betty, carrying 9st. 21b. over the Round Course* at Newmarket in six minutes, and 40 seconds; and it was thought that he moved 82 feet and a half in one second of time, which is nearly at the rate of one mile in a minute, a degree of velocity, which no horse has been known to exceed.”
* The Round Course is 3 miles 4 furlongs, and 93 yards in length.
In 2011, the unbeaten Frankel won the 2000 Guineas Classic over the Rowley Mile at Newmarket in a time more than thirty seconds faster than the then course record. This was forty seconds slower than Flying Childers.
He is described by James Whyte as a chestnut horse with part white on his nose and four white socks, although the General Stud Book states he is a bay with a white blaze. If James Seymour’s portrait is accurate, he would certainly appear to have a bay coat. Although the Duke of Devonshire received several offers for the colt, including, it is reputed, one of the horse’s weight in gold, he remained in the Cavendish ownership until his death aged twenty-six and stood at his Grace’s stud at Chatsworth.
The painting shows Flying Childers held by a groom, on Newmarket Heath or a racecourse. The post behind the horse is probably the ‘Rubbing Post’, so-called because after a race, the horses gathered at this point to be rubbed down. The horse has his ears back and is showing the whites of his eyes. This could be taken as a sign of bad temper, but given the surroundings, and the fact that he appears ‘tucked up’ (the line of his belly rises sharply from behind the girth to his hind leg), it suggests to me that he is still ‘wound up’ with the excitement of either racing or training.
Flying Childers’ Arabian heritage is clear for the knowledgeable to see. The painting shows the fine legs, tapered nose, dished face and, although docked after the custom of the time, his tail is raised, suggesting the characteristic high carriage of the Arab. Standing 15.2 hands at the withers, he was tall, not only for a racehorse of the time but also the Arabian breed in general. Purebreds usually stand between 14 and 14.2 hands. He did, however match the height of his sire, himself unusually tall for his breed.
Although the style of painting could be described as naïve, Seymour has captured the horse’s tension and also a certain wariness on the part of the groom – shown in the way he is holding the reins and the slightly defensive stance, as if he is ready for trouble – although his expression is calm. His charge was a stallion and they can be notoriously difficult to handle. His sire’s original name was ‘Ras el Fedowi’, which translates as ‘The Headstrong One’.
Flying Childers was himself successful at stud, but he was eclipsed (if you will excuse the pun) by his generally-accepted full brother, Bartlett’s Childers, owned by Mr. Bartlett of Nuttle Court near Masham in Yorkshire. Young or Bartlett’s Childers did not race, due to his propensity to bleed from the nose. This gave rise to his other name, Bleeding Childers. However, he was extremely successful at stud, siring several influential horses, not least Marske, sire of the mighty Eclipse, whose top speed, it is claimed, was matched only by Flying Childers.
© Heather King