Inquiring readers: This article from frequent contributor, Patricia Saffran from Brandy Parfums, describes the exhibit at the British Museum, which opened in London on May 24. These exquisite works of art, along with others, will be on view through September 30th. With this exhibit, the upcoming Olympic Games, and the Diamond Jubilee Celebration, what a sterling year it has been thus far for Great Britain.
Queen Elizabeth’s love of horses is well-known. As part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration, an exhibition has been created in her honor on the history of the horse in civilization. Opening May 24, 2012 at the British Museum in London, the emphasis in this exhibition is on the domestication of horses and the revolutionary impact of horses on ancient civilizations. Artifacts and art from the Museum’s extensive collection, as well as various loans on display depict the horse in its early use in farming, hunting and warfare. In the exhibition, the role of horses in the history of the Middle East is examined with an emphasis on the breeding of the Arab as a foundation of the Thoroughbred. Britain’s long equestrian tradition figures prominently in the show.
The genus Equus, including all current species such as horses, asses and zebras, is native to North America. During the first major glaciations of the Pliocene, around 2.6 million years ago, certain species crossed the Bering Land Bridge. From there they spread out, some to Africa diversifying into zebras. Other species spread to Asia, the Mideast and North Africa as desert asses. The modern horse, equus caballus, migrated to Asia, Europe and the Mideast. Other Equus species drifted toward South America.
Due to the possible change in grasses, forage, or the threat of hunting, it is believed that horses, asses and zebras remaining in North and South America died out at the end of the last glaciations of the Pleistocene around 10,000 years ago, but there is no definitive proof. Some horses may have stayed and survived in the Great Plains or elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. Horses were reintroduced into the Americas by the Spanish about five hundred years ago, and possibly before that by the Vikings and Asians.
As horses moved toward the rich grasslands in the steppes of southern Russia around 5,000 years ago, their domestication occurred – the wild Przewalski’s horse in Central Asia is an exception.
Horses were introduced to the Ancient Near East in about 2,300 BC. Before this time donkeys, asses and oxen pulled crude carts in this area. Technological advances later on saw swifter carts and chariots pulled by horses, and the development of horseback riding. The history of conquest utilizing horses along with advancements in writing, art, architecture and agriculture were all part of the culture of these ancient lands.
The following are highlights of the exhibition with some of the history attached to the objects and art on display.
The famous standard of Ur, a Sumerian mosaic from 2,400- 2,600 BC with chariots drawn by equines is on display.
One of the earliest known representations of a horse and rider will be shown – a terracotta mould from Old Babylonia (Iraq) from about 2000-1800 BC. The rider sits well to the back of the horse where there is very little control. Later in the ninth century BC, Assyrian cavalrymen brought horses that may have been bred to be finer and faster. They sat forward on the horse for better maneuverability, and the calvary charge was born.
Horses were highly prized and given as gifts in the Ancient Near East around 2000 BC according to ancient texts. Also, around this time what appears to be an Arab type can be seen in Egyptian tomb paintings – horses with a short back, high tail and large eyes. In about 1,600 BC the use of the faster, superior chariot ushered in the Chariot age – which was to have a profound effect on warfare, even reaching later on to China and elsewhere. Particularly among the ancient Hurrians, between the Tigris and Euphrates, a system of royal patronage developed with an aristocratic military.
The Assyrians reveled in the horse as a source of prestige and created meticulously crafted horse trappings. A Neo-Assyrian carved relief from Nimrud(Iraq) from the 9th century BC shows the intricate detail in these chariot horse trappings.
The Achaemenid King Darius was known to hunt fast game like lions from a fast-moving chariot and a seal of this image is on display. Darius was better known for developing a system similar to the Pony Express where horses were changed at intervals to deliver mail along the improved Royal road, stretching 1000 miles long. It was Herodotus who wrote, “nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted range in the quickest possible time. Neither snow, rain, heat nor darkness.” (Sound familiar?) – Herodotus, the Histories, Book VIII, 5th century BC.
The Parthian Empire 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD, saw more developments in horse combat. They were famous for the “Parthian shot” – pretending to flee while on horseback, then turning around shooting an arrow backwards. We now use the expression, “Parting shot” that comes from this manoeuvre.
Under the Parthians and later Sassanian Dynasty in 224 AD horses and riders started to wear armor for battle. While we think of jousting as quintessentially European with its armored horses and riders, the sport was actually practiced early on by the Parthians and Sassanians.
The horse grew in importance in the world across what is now Arabia, India and Turkey with numerous depictions in paintings and ceramics. Lovely Mughal miniatures from the 7th century AD reveal the high status of horses. Many show an owner and his beloved horse with delicate detail. The famous
Furusiyya manuscript from the 14th century AD is on display with its text on horsemanship.
Fine horses in the Middle East are explored in the Abbas Pasha manuscript from the 19th century. This document is the main text to describe the lineage of the purebred Arabian horses acquired by Abbas Pasha (the viceroy of Egypt). The Arab is the result of deliberate selective breeding.
This exhibition includes the famous painting of the Godolphin Arabian by Thomas Butler, painted around 1750- 1755. The Godolphin Arabian was one of three foundation stallions (the other two being the Byerly Turk and the Darley Arabian) brought to England in the 18th century and bred to native
English horses to eventually become the Thoroughbred. The majority of modern Thoroughbreds (95%) are descended from these stallions. Those readers who saw the fantastic exhibition, All the Queen’s Horses, at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2003, will be familiar with this painting, which is on loan from
the Royal Collection.
Also from the Royal Collection is a silver Faberge sculpture of the race horse Persimmon who had been owned by the Queen’s great-grandfather, Edward VII. The horse created a sensation by winning the 1896 Doncaster, St. Leger and Epsom Derby, the Epsom Derby being shown around the world in an
Normally hanging in the private quarters of Windsor, a George Stubbs portrait of Laetitia, Lady Lade on horseback will be on display. Lady Lade was a somewhat controversial figure, who swore among other things, but who was a gifted horsewoman. This painting from 1793, was commissioned by George IV who was smitten with Laetitia, the wife of his racing manager. The pleasure-loving George IV was himself an expert horseman, whip and breeder of racehorses.
Discussing the exhibition, curator John Curtis told The Guardian, “There are probably horses somewhere in every gallery in the museum, from Assyrian sculptures to coins. They’re so familiar and ubiquitous they mostly go unnoticed. We want to bring them together and show their importance in
history. The horse was an engine of human development…..”
For more information: britishmuseum.org Admission is free. The exhibition runs from May 24 – September 30.
While in the Museum, be sure to see the Elgin Marbles, a must for horse enthusiasts.