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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.