1839: The Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree in Liverpool. Engraving by J Harris. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Sport of Kings

The Grand National and the culture of horseracing in art and literature

Artillery Row

The Grand National is the greatest, and most famous, steeplechase in the world. Having occurred this year on April 10, this steadfast feature in the British social calendar followed the Oxbridge Boat Race (April 4) in kicking off the summer social season. It is part of a long line of events that juxtapose elite sporting achievement with social interest, that combine the drama of the race with the supposed sophistication of high society, that ultimately epitomise the best of British culture.

While the Grand National occurs at the beginning of the season, the months that follow are punctuated with equine events – from the Royal Windsor Horse Show (1-4 July) to the Qatar Goodwood Festival (27-31 July), not to mention Royal Ascot (15-19 June) and the Investec Epsom Derby (4 June). While the order of events has been rearranged this year due to Covid-19 restrictions, the fact remains that the British social calendar is propped up by National Hunt races or horse shows.

The Grand National is part of a long line of events that juxtapose elite sporting achievement with social interest

It is important to note that, like many other sports, there are horseracing fixtures year-round. So why is it that the Grand National, along with the following equestrian events, attract viewers and visitors who do not normally follow horseracing, and who generally know next to nothing about the sport? The answer is simple: it is the excitement, furore and entertainment of “The Sporting Event”.

Equestrian sport, and organised horseracing, has long been a part of British aristocratic culture – from hunting to thoroughbred training, it is an embedded part of elite, and royal, life. In spite of this, a series of events in the nineteenth century indicates a shift in the tradition: the royal carriage procession at Ascot was established in 1825, Epsom Derby became a concrete part of the English calendar by 1829 and the first ‘National’ was run at Aintree in 1839. The nineteenth century cemented horseracing enthusiasm in British culture as it saw not only the rise of sporting fanaticism, but also the introduction of the mass-attended sporting event. Mass-produced publications reached more people, railways and transport links allowed for easier access and the increasing popularity of sports betting saw aristocracy standing alongside workmen as indulgence and entertainment slowly became a staple part of Victorian sporting culture – not to mention a heightened view of Royal interest that has been part and parcel with horseracing culture to this day.

The Parade Ring at Cheltenham, Lionel Edwards. This image is kindly reproduced with the permission of ©Estate of Lionel Edwards courtesy of Felix Rosenstiel’s Widow and Son

Beyond the culture of the social event, however, racing horses and the event of the horserace is a fond subject in art. Accurately capturing the physical form of the horse is an artistic challenge, while commissions for paintings often come from wealthy society members and horse-owners who are fervent race-followers. The art of the horseracing event, meanwhile, offers an insight into the perceptions and priorities regarding horseracing across different time periods.

William Frith’s painting, for example, The Derby Day (1856-8) visually captures the crowds and displays a cross-section of society in the attendants of the race. While horseracing occurs in the background, Frith focusses on the chaotic nature of the crowd, the proximity of classes and the emergence of horseracing as a social event and a key part of British culture. Conversely, Lionel Edward’s The Parade Ring at Cheltenham (1950), focusses on the horses, the jockeys, the trainers and the horse owners. The crowd is an unidentified mass beyond the ring boundary. This is an exclusive view of the racers, away from the throngs of the spectators, occupying a coveted space at the centre of this viewing arena.

Edwards does not side-line the drama of the sporting event, however, as his undated Ascot: The Start of the Royal Hunt Cup displays. Here, Edwards captures not only the speed of the race but also the excitement in the hunched jockeys and the flying horses set against the muted greens of the track and shrubs. The focus is on the movement of the horses, and while the crowd is not pictured, there is an impression that the viewer is a part of the masses absorbing the action. We get a similar view in Sir Alfred James’s A Start at Newmarket (1937) as his iconic impressionist style emphasises the vibrant colours and a Romantic side of the sport, while Jean Louis Théodore Géricault’s The 1821 Derby at Epsom (1882-1884) offers a dramatic rendering in terms of colour contrast and animalistic movement, showcasing the rocking horse gallop, as opposed to the more realistic depiction of equine movement foregrounded by Edward Muybridge’s photographic study The Horse in Motion (1878). Meanwhile, James Seymour is considered one of the earliest animal painters, with Chestnut Horse with a Groom near Newmarket (1730-40) emanating a typical eighteenth-century static portrait style, emphasising the physique of the horse, in contrast to the many modern artists who offer commission based, authentic portraiture of much-loved race horses, not to mention Roy Miller’s impressive, and highly coveted, oeuvre of equestrian art.

The Royal Hunt Cup at Ascot, Lionel Edwards, this image is kindly reproduced with the permission of ©Estate of Lionel Edwards courtesy of Felix Rosenstiel’s Widow and Son.

In addition to these artistic representations, the synonymity of racing and betting holds a key focus in Victorian literature. In Anthony Trollope’s Irish novel, The Kelly and O’Kelley’s (1848), Walter Blake is described to have “a large stud of horses, to the training and working of which he attended almost as closely as the person whom he paid for doing so. But it was in the betting-ring that he was most formidable”. Meanwhile, in George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894), Esther has “heard of racecourses as shameful places where men were led to their ruin, and betting she had always understood to be sinful”. Both Trollope and Moore include the culture of horseracing in conjunction with moral weakness: the parallels of horseracing, training, riding and gambling is made evident and serve as a warning for nineteenth-century readers.

The Adventure of Silver Blaze (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes’ short story The Adventure of Silver Blaze follows the disappearance of a great racehorse and the death of its trainer – the scale of this case notes the immense value that racehorses hold, while in more recent years, former jockey Dick Francis’s novels naturally feature horseracing as an instrumental element. It would be amiss not to mention the TV series, Peaky Blinders where horses, races and betting is central to the plot, and the action. The nationwide infatuation with this show has also led to augmented interest in racing events, as the aesthetic of 1920s indulgence, glamour and excitement at the sporting event has gained increasing popularity, fuelling a resurgence of modern interest in the social racing events.

There is therefore a cyclical trend at play: horseracing sustains an ardent place in British culture, and it remains a valued subject in artistic representations. The sporting event continues to draw in the masses while the literature and art delight the excitement of race day. The interweaving facets of Royal influence, betting tradition and majestic animalistic power ground horseracing as a timeless, and perpetuating, feature of both our social and artistic culture.

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