Anglomania (Part 1): The spreading of English style equitation in the Eighteenth century

James Seymour, Mr Russell sul suo cavallo baio da caccia, c.1740 © Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

James Seymour, Mr Russell on his Bay Hunter, c.1740
© Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

It seems that James Seymour’s passion for horses and horse racing finally led him to ruin. Not much is known of his life, but a chronicler of the time hints that, despite being the son of a banker and diamond trader, he died in 1752, reduced to poverty by the demon of gambling and by the costs of maintenance of his racing horses. Nevertheless, it is for that same passion for horses that his name has been handed down to posterity. Seymour, who was born in London in 1702, was in fact one of the first painters, along with John Wotton (1682-1764) and Peter Tillemans (1684-1734), who devoted his artistic production to sport. His favorite subjects were horses, which he vividly portrayed in many paintings and drawings, especially dedicated to hunting scenes and to the races at Newmarket, which in the first half of the eighteenth century became the most popular sport in England.

Among the various paintings of equestrian subjects that Seymour left us, there is one, preserved at the Tate Modern Gallery in London, which is particularly interesting. It is the portrait of a gentleman on horseback in the English countryside accompanied by his hound. The identity of the rider is not certain. An old label on the verso suggests he may be a descendant of Admiral Edward Russell (1653-1727), Earl of Orford, owner of Chippenham Park manor, near Newmarket. What is most striking in the picture is the rider’s clothing, which is represented in the most minute detail. He wears a green frock coat tightened at the waist with a leather belt, a dark jockey cap, light and firmly-tied breeches-lacings, with a buttoned leather strap above the knee, and tall, rigid, bicolored boots. His stylish outfit is completed by a scarf which is tied around his neck and a pair of light, soft leather gloves. With equal accuracy, the painter represented the details of the harness. The horse is bridled with a full cheek snaffle bit and a headstall without a noseband. The saddle is partially hidden by the coat of the rider, but the visible details identify it as a hunting type “English saddle”, with low pommel and cantle and short flaps. Note the folded saddle blanket, and the second girth which goes over the seat and done up under the horse. The horse has the typical slender body of the thoroughbred, with a curved and long neck and a small head. The picture is dated around 1740.

Philibert Benoît de La Rue Monsieur de Nestier, écuyer ordinario della grande scuderia del Re, (stampa di Jean Daullé), 1753 © British Museum - Londra

This picture is considered the emblem
of the classic academic seat
Philibert Benoit de La Rue, Monsieur de Nestier,
Ordinary écuyer of the great King’s stable,
(engravings by Jean Daullé), 1753
© British Museum – Londra

A simple comparison with other equestrian portraits of the time makes the historical importance of Seymour’s picture immediately obvious. Consider, for example, the very famous picture of Louis Cazeau de Nestier (1684-1754), écuyer of the great King’s stable, portrayed while he was riding Le Florido, by Philibert Benoit de La Rue, in 1751. This picture, which was made popular by Jean Daullé’s engraving (1753), is considered the touchstone of the classic academic seat. In this case, the rider wears a tailcoat with wide cuffs, tall and soft musketeer boots, wig and tricorn. The horse is mounted with a double bridle, with a saddle à la Française, with high saddle-bow, but low cantle. The horse is a beautiful Andalusian stallion, which was sent as a gift to Louis XV by the King of Spain.

The two riders could not be more different. Nestier is the emblem of eighteenth-century classical equitation, while the rider portrayed by Seymour looks like a gentleman of the following century. His clothing, harnesses, and even the type of horse he is riding, will in fact be widespread throughout Europe in the nineteenth century (and bicolored hunting boots are still in use today). Yet, if the dating is correct, Seymour’s picture is a decade earlier than that by de La Rue. This inconsistency indicates an interesting historical phenomenon, which testifies, once again, the close connection between politics, fashion and horse riding. In a word, it demonstrates that the equestrian art cannot be confined within the mere sphere of material culture, but fully takes part in the evolution of the history of ideas and of customs.

In the nineteenth century, the "English" clothing will be of rigor across Europe Filippo Palizzi, Hunting in the Neapolitan campaign, 1847 Private collection

In the nineteenth century, the “English” clothing
became de rigueur across Europe
Filippo Palizzi, Hunting in the Neapolitan campaign, 1847
Private collection

Beginning in the eighteenth century, a growing interest in English institutions spread in Europe. In a continent still dominated by absolutism, intellectuals, but also part of the nobility and, above all, the rising bourgeoisie, looked with curiosity and admiration to the English parliamentary monarchy. Already in 1215, the Magna Charta Libertatum imposed a number of significant limits to the power of the English sovereigns: they could not impose taxes at their own will, or imprison free people without the decision of a judge. Then, in 1689, the Bill of Rights sanctioned the freedom of speech and of debate in the Parliament. It established also that the king could not abolish laws or impose taxes without the consent of the Parliament, which should be elected with free elections. Principles that today may seem obvious, but that, at the time, were not obvious at all. In that context, the English institutions represented a beacon of democracy and modernity, to which the absolute regimes looked with suspicion and apprehension, as their principles ignited the imagination and passion of a growing number of European subjects. On the other hand, the greater freedom in England was matched with economic progress and soon Europeans began to be attracted not only by the English political institutions, but also by British literature, arts and by the corresponding British way of life. From clothing to food, from amusement to sports, England became a model of modernity to imitate.

James Seymour, Saltando il cancello (datazione ignota) Denver Museum - Berger Collection

In England the passion for racing and hunting
led to the selection of a new type of horse
James Seymour, Jumping the gate (date unknown)
Denver Museum – Berger Collection

Also riding was involved in this trend and indeed played a crucial role in spreading the “British fashion”. It should be noted that the differences with the continental way of life do not only relate to political institutions. In the domain of equestrian art, in fact, across the Channel different practices developed, which gradually began to spread in Europe. While the rest of the Continent was fond of the stylized riding exercises and of the baroque figure of Iberian horses, in England, as early as the seventeenth century, grew a passion for speed races and horse riding in the countryside. For these needs, in the late sixteenth century, began the slow selection of a new breed of horse: agile, spirited, fast. The Thoroughbred was less suited to the deliberate slowness of academic exercises, but was perfect to compete with the wind on the turf at Newmarket. This kind of horse was equally well-suited for chasing fox or deer over English estates, scattered with natural obstacles which had to be forded. Academic riding was also practiced in England (as testified by some beautiful drawings by John Vanderbank) but, over time, country riding and especially horse racing, became the distinctive features of the British equestrian world.

John Vanderbank, Volte Renversée a mano destra, 1728 © Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

Academic riding was also practiced in England
John Vanderbank, The Volte Renversée to the right, 1728
© Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

Horse racing was relatively widespread even on the continent. In Italy, for example, almost every town had its palio, but these competitions were very different from those that are held today at racetracks. In most cases, they took place within the city’s streets and very often the race was held between riderless horses (i.e. without jockey): as in the case of the Corsa dei Barberi that traditionally ended the Roman Carnival, or the Palio di S. Giovanni in Florence. These competitions were held during special occasions, and belonged to the same tradition of the ancient knightly trials.

David Allan, La mossa della Corsa dei Barberi a Roma, circa 1767-77 © Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

In continental Europe, horse racing
was very much different than in England
David Allan, The Start of the Race in the Corso, Rome, around 1767-77
© Tate Modern Gallery – London

It is in England that horse racing assumed the character of a modern sport, with the progressive specification of a set of rules regarding the age of the horses, the weight of the jockeys and the establishment of cash prizes for the winners. Already James I (1566-1625) led to the construction of the first racetracks at Newmarket and it was with Charles II (1630-185) that the most prestigious races were established: the King’s Plate and the Town Plate. In 1744, two more races, financed by local merchants and landowners, were established, with prizes of 50 guineas. Soon horse racing fostered a significant economy, both because of the prizes distributed and, above all, for the amount of the bets. In addition, it increased horse trading and promoted all the professions related to the care and maintenance of these animals, starting with that of the jockey. Later, horse races became social events in which members of the high society met and ladies and gentlemen showed off fashionable clothes and their beautiful coaches. The fame of these events, in which the luxury of high society and the trepidation of the competition mixed together, quickly spread across the continent and many fans began to go to England to buy horses (as in the case of the Italian poet Vittorio Alfieri, to whom we recently dedicated an article in two parts, which you can read by clicking on this link).

to read part 2 of this article, please click on this link ->

Horse racing soon became social events Peter Tillemans, Going to the Start for the King's Plate Newmarket Horse Race, 1725ca © Yale Center for British-Art - Paul Mellon Collection

Horse racing soon became social events
Peter Tillemans, Going to the Start for the King’s Plate Newmarket Horse Race, 1725ca
© Yale Center for British-Art – Paul Mellon Collection

Bibliography

GRAF, Arturo, L’anglomania e l’influsso inglese in Italia nel XVIII secolo, Torino, E. Loscher, 1911.

ROCHE, Daniel, La culture des apparences, Paris, Fayard, 1989 (Il linguaggio della moda. Alle origini dell’industria dell’abbigliamento, Torino, Einaudi, 1991)

ROCHE, Daniel, La gloire et la puissance. Histoire de la culture équestre XVIe-XIXe siècle, Paris, Fayard, 2011.

Without horses I’m not even the half of myself. The equestrian passion of Vittorio Alfieri. Part 1

François-Xavier Fabre, Portrait of Vittorio Alfieri, 1793, Museo degli Uffizi - Firenze

François-Xavier Fabre, Portrait of Vittorio Alfieri, 1793,
Museo degli Uffizi – Firenze

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Given the perverse imagination of those who draw up the syllabus, I do not know if today he is still studied at school. To be honest, when I was in high school, they did everything to make him unpleasant to me. They presented him as the “poet of the heroic will”, strutting in the pose of fierce opponent of every tyranny, author of indigestible tragedies in verse. It was, fortunately, at the university that I discovered that Vittorio Alfieri, one of the greatest Italian poets of the eighteenth century, had a much more interesting and adventurous life than I imagined. Above all, reading his beautiful autobiography, Vita di Vittorio Alfieri da Asti, scritta da esso (Life of Vittorio Alfieri from Asti, written by himself, published posthumously in 1806), I discovered his deep passion for horses. It is clear that this significantly contributed to change my opinion of him.

The many anecdotes of equestrian topics scattered throughout his life are very interesting and fun, not only because they reveal the inclination toward horses of one of the great poets of the Italian literature, but mainly because they attest to the importance of the horse in the customs and the culture of the time.

Pietro Longhi, Passeggiata a cavallo, 1755-60 Museo del Settecento, Ca Rezzonico - Venezia

Alfieri began to ride at the age of fourteen.
Pietro Longhi, The horseback ride, 1755-60
Museo del Settecento, Ca Rezzonico – Venezia

Son of the Count of Cortemilia, Vittorio Alfieri was born in 1749 and lost both his parents when he was still very young. In 1763, at the death of his uncle who had been his tutor and had always restricted his activities , Alfieri was finally able to realize his dream of “going to the Riding School”, that he had always “ardently” desired. The prior of the Royal Academy of Turin, where the young count was pursuing his education, knowing his “great anxiety” to be instructed in the art of riding, offered to indulge him in this respect, if he would enroll for the degree of Master of Arts at the university. Alfieri accepted without delay and immediately set about to pass the exam.

Thus then I became, I know not how, in less than a month Master of the Arts; and was immediately permitted to take my first lesson in riding – an art in which I became extremely expert in a few years. I was then below the middle size, and very meagre; my knees, which are the pivots of equitation, were extremely weak; but my passion for this exercise, and the determination of my will, supplied the place of strength. In a short time my progress was extremely rapid, particularly in the art of ruling the horse by the mutual consent of hands and mind,and in that of understanding the impulses and the temper of the horse. To this agreeable and noble exercise I owed the return of my health, the increase of my growth, and a certain vigor of constitution, which was soon visible to every eye. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 105)

When the young Count finally came into possession of his property, he started to lead a good life, and he spent the most part of his time riding on low-quality rented horses, in the company of other scions of noble families. Following the marriage of his sister Giulia, in 1764, Alfieri obtained a wider liberty to spend his money. So he decided to acquire his first horse.

He was a very beautiful white Sardinian horse, extremely handsome in his whole form; but specially in his head, neck, and chest: I was extremely fond of this animal; even now I never think of him without experiencing the most lively emotions. My attachment was so excessive that when he labored under the slightest malady, which not infrequently happened, because though fiery, he was yet of a delicate constitution, sleep and appetite both forsook me. My fondness, however, when mounted on him, did not prevent me from teasing and tormenting him, according as the whim and caprice of the moment exerted their influence on my mind. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 110)

George STUBBS, William Anderson con due cavalli da sella, 1793 Royal Collection - Windsor

In 1768, Alfieri went for the first time in England
and he was immediately struck by the beauty of English horses.
George STUBBS, William Anderson with Two Saddle-horses, 1793
Royal Collection – Windsor

In 1768 Alfieri went for the first time to England and in that country he especially liked “the roads, the inns, the horses, the females” (Alfieri, 1877, p. 142). At that time, a growing interest in the English institutions, culture and fashion was spreading throughout Europe. England was felt to be a model of modernity and progress. It was a real “Anglomania,” which affected also the equestrian field: in a few decades, the English thoroughbred became the most popular breed and, in addition, new equestrian techniques were adopted, such as the rising trot, called precisely “English trot”.

In occasione del secondo soggiorno in Inghiterra, Alfieri ebbe una tumultuosa relazione con la moglie del Visconte Ligonier,Joshua Reynolds, Lord Ligonier, 1760© Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

During his second stay in England, Alfieri had a tumultuous relationship with the wife of Viscount Ligonier.
Joshua Reynolds, Lord Ligonier, 1760
© Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

After traveling in various European countries, in 1771 Alfieri returned to England and there he fell in love with Penelope Pitt, wife of Viscount Edward Ligonier. It was a passionate and thwarted love for a beautiful woman, that the young Italian count lived with romantic enthusiasm, giving vent to the turmoil of his heart, risking the most reckless equestrian deeds. One morning, while on horseback in the company of a friend, in spite of the protests and warnings of his companion, he decided to jump the fence that divided a lawn from the street. However, on the first attempt, the horse hit the fence and fell to the ground, together with the rider. There and then, the young daredevil believed to be unharmed. He jumped back in the saddle and, ignoring the screams of his companion, he cantered again towards the obstacle, and this time he finally cleared it. But he did not enjoy that triumph for long. Gradually, he began to feel an increasing pain in his left shoulder. The ride back seemed endless. At home, the surgeon labored and caused him to suffer for a long time to fix his broken collarbone. The love affair with the lady ended with a duel and a public scandal. The young enthusiast suffered the disappointment of discovering that, before him, the beautiful intriguer had had a love affair with a groom and the whole affair was spread by the gazettes.

Thomas Gainsborough, Penelope Pitt, Viscontessa Ligonier, 1770 The Huntingto Library, San Marino - California

Vittorio Alfieri’s love affair with Penelope Pitt
ended up with a public scandal.
Thomas Gainsborough, Penelope Pitt, 1770
The Huntington Library, San Marino – California

Alfieri then took to the road again, traveling to Holland, France and then to Spain, where he immediately purchased new mounts.

Before leaving Britain I had disposed of my whole stud, except the most beautiful animal, which I left in charge of the Marquis Caraccioli, and, as without horses I’m not even the half of myself, I purchased two a few days after my arrival at Barcelona. One of them was a Carthusiam from Jerez, a beautiful golden chestnut; the other one was a Cordovan hacha, and though somewhat smaller, was full of spirit. I had always longed to possess Spanish horses, which are very difficult to export from their country; my heart therefore bounded with joy on becoming master of two of the most beautiful of their kind. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 172-173)

Ginés Andrés De Aguirre, Mercato di cavalli, secolo XVIII Museo del Prado - Madrid

In 1771, Alfieri purchased two horses in Spain:
a Cordovan and a Carthusian of Jerez.
Ginés Andrés De Aguirre, horse market, eighteenth century
Museo del Prado – Madrid

And his love for the beautiful Carthusian horse was such that traveling on the road to Zaragoza and Madrid he says:

I performed almost the whole of this journey on foot, with my Andalusian courser, which accompanied me like a faithful dog, and appeared to understand whatever was said to him. How great was my delight on being alone with him in the vast wilds of Aragon. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 174)

After almost a year, the journey finally came to an end. Returning to Barcelona, Alfieri had to part with his beautiful Andalusian, with whom he had traveled for more than thirty consecutive days, coming from Cadiz. Being “a great enemy” of selling his horses, he decided to give them both away: the Cordovan to the “very pretty” daughters of a landlady, the Carthusian to a French banker, who lived in Barcelona, with whom he had already become acquainted at the time of his first visit to the city.

to be continued >

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Vittorio ALFIERI, Life of Vittorio Alfieri, Boston, J.R. Osgood, 1877 [I slightly changed the translations of some quotes, as the text edited by William D. Howells is sometimes quite far from the original in Italian]