The Horse: 30,000 Years of the Horse in Art

by Tamsin Pickeral

Published by Merrell

286 pages, 2006








Ultimate Horse Power

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


The success of any art book is often in the eye of the beholder. Clearly what moves one reader won't the next. And it's not just a matter of the art alone. If it were, all a publisher would have to do is reporduce great images on some contrived theme and -- voila! -- stuff them all into a book. Certainly, there are even lots of books that fit that description and they'll even look great on your coffeetable. But they're not great art books. A great one takes something more.

The Horse: 30,000 Years of the Horse in Art has that something extra that takes the book from being merely pretty and interesting and turns it into something extraordinary. That something extra can be summed up mostly simply by two words: Tamsin Pickeral. Pickeral is a writer who specializes in both horses and art. Most of the time those two interests don't overlap in her projects. In 2005 she produced two books: Turner, Whistler, Monet and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. In the near future, she'll see the publication of The Horse Owner's Bible. Clearly, the two 2005 titles required expertise in various aspects of the art world. And no one need attempt writing anything called The Horse Owner's Bible without a great deal of knowledge about horses.

These twinned areas of expertise are beautifully blended -- and readily seen -- in The Horse. It's feasible that an author could have produced a book on this theme with a great deal of knowledge in one area and not the other, but it wouldn't have been this book: it wouldn't have had that extraordinary something extra.

Pickeral defines and describes her book with the first careful line of her introduction to The Horse:

The relationship between horse and man is one of the longest love affairs to traverse history, and it is an affair that has been catalogued by the hand of the artist.

There you have it, almost nothing more need be said: man- and equine-kind have a long and complicated relationship. It's a relationship that spans history and artists have been documenting it all this time.

Much of the balance of the introduction is a quick tour of the rest of the book. That introduction -- like the book itself -- is a visual tour through history, and all of it connected by our equine friends.

And what a history. We see horses depicted in art for the first time in rock and cave drawings, "far from stumbling and tentative," writes Pickeral, our tour guide, "the earliest known cave art is astonishing in its virtuosity."

We see fourth century horses pulling chariots and horses and riders from the Parthenon. Horses on mosaics and carpets and in fresco. Every visual entry is accompanied by Pickeral's expert and measured thoughts. Looking, not only here, but throughout the work, at both the art and the horses themselves. The combination is enlightening, as is the choice of material Pickeral has decided to include.

Those that love horses will be familiar with many of these images, but very few will have seen all of them. For instance, many have seen famous equine artist George Stubbs' [1724-1806] A Horse Frightened by a Lion, painted in 1770, but I had never seen this artist's final painting reproduced. That work is called Hambletonian, Rubbing Down and it was painted in 1800. And where many of Stubbs' beautiful paintings of beautiful horses had been idealized sometimes almost to the point of silliness, this final work is almost hyperreal. Pickeral writes that the work was commissioned by the owner of the horse to commemorate his win at Newmarket. The race, writes Pickeral, "was won by only a small margin and the victory had effectively been beaten out of him. The horse in Stubbs' painting is exhausted and visibly disrtessed; his groom and trainer stare definately out of the canvas, challenging and accusing, with much the same expression that Hambletonian projects through his exquisitely painted eye."

When Hambletonian's owner saw the painting he refused to pay his bill and the whole thing ended in court. One can imagine the 75-year-old Stubbs, after a lifetime of painting things the way owners wanted to see them, deciding that, at this late date, he was going to paint what he actually saw.

The Horse is a sensational book. In fact, it's difficult to imagine that there could be a work on this topic that would be better. | November 2006

Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.