Sporting Art Auction Highlights History, Tranquility, and Power of the Horse

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"A Bedford Cottage Trial" is among the pieces featured in Sunday's Sporting Art Auction at Keeneland.
"A Bedford Cottage Trial" is among the pieces featured in Sunday's Sporting Art Auction at Keeneland. (Courtesy Cross Gate Gallery)

My 88-year-old dad has the most amazing picks every day when we watch horse racing. Time and time again, I watch his selections hit the board. When the Sporting Art Auction catalog arrived from Cross Gate Gallery, I sat him down with a stack of post it notes and asked him for his “paddock picks.” For over an hour, his palsied hands turned each page slowly as he leaned forward and studied the magnificent selection of paintings, etchings, watercolors and sculptures. Dad is not from the generation that would squander an entire post it note to mark a page in a book. Slowly he would take one and carefully tear it into multiple strips and then use a small strip of paper to mark his selections. It was amusing to watch.

St. Simon
"St. Simon" (Courtesy Cross Gate Gallery)

I grinned when I saw Dad’s paddock pick. A stunning bronze by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm of St. Simon. “He was the leading sire in Great Britain and Ireland nine times and the leading broodmare sire six times.” Like all great horses, there are always interesting side stories. When his owner/breeder Prince Gustavus Batthyany of Hungary passed away from a heart attack, his entire stable was sent to a dispersal sale. The trainer tried to dissuade bidders on St. Simon and painted his hocks white. Shady indeed! Yet the horse rose to greatness and was undefeated in his racing career. 

I couldn’t stop thinking about Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s painting “The Stable Favorite.” A groom in khaki pants, a white shirt and shoes leans back while a high-stepping spotted horse on a lunge line circles him. In today’s world, the pony would be an instant photographer’s favorite. The artist’s life story is most unexpected! “Cash” Coolidge is famous for his series of “Dogs Playing Poker”! What? I didn’t expect this connection! He was raised by abolitionist Quaker farmers and had no art training. He was a druggist and a sign painter and started painting dogs in human situations. The next time I see any version of dogs playing poker, I am going to smile as Coolidge could certainly paint a striking horse also!

I have always loved the art of Rosa Bonheur and her family. I often make a pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to “The Horse Fair.” I admire how she managed to succeed despite the roadblocks placed in front of her. She was known to have been a handful as a kid, Unruly, disruptive, and a failure in school but luckily her family believed in the education of women. They encouraged her to draw and paint. She wore men’s clothing to gain access to slaughterhouses to study anatomy but in truth she was a nonconformist. Her painting in this auction is a group of sheep in a meadow. One is standing while the others are peacefully resting on the ground.  It is titled “Quiescence” which is a state of tranquility or repose. The sun-kissed sheep are so realistic that you almost expect to see an ear flick. I love seeing a few flowers tucked into a tuft of earth. So peaceful and worth losing yourself in the moment.

"Equanimity" (Courtesy Cross Gate Gallery)

I turned a page in the catalog and shattered my own quiescence. HARLEY! My muse!  (I have written several essays about Harley, the escort pony at Churchill Downs and Keeneland.)  American artist Diana Tremaine has captured the nobility of this imposing character of a horse. He certainly stands out wherever he is. He was honored last year as a Breyer model horse at BreyerFest.   

She met Harley last April when she was spending a week in the artists cottage at Keeneland. “He caught my eye immediately when I was watching the races. There is nobody I would want to paint more than Harley!” Her painting is the essence of his largesse. “That’s what I wanted to capture. I see him as kind of this regal rock of Gibraltar to their high strung, sometimes crazy racehorses. He is their anchor. That is why I titled it “Equanimity” because that means emotional stability and composure; especially under tension or strain. I just thought there is nothing that could describe Harley better.”  

The Headley-Whitney Museum of Art is currently featuring an exhibit of Andre Pater called “An American Journey.” A new comprehensive book has recently been published featuring 240 of his selected paintings and drawings called “A Matter of Light: The Art of Andre Pater.” The Sporting Art Auction is featuring five of his pieces including my favorite, “Summer Stream,” depicting two Herefords casually jaunting down a river stream. Pater says “My paintings are happy paintings because it reflects who I am. I use light. I use movement and this is what I think sets me apart from the others.”

Chelsea Dickson is the Cross Gate Gallery auction coordinator. This is no small matter when you look at how deeply she researches each work of art for the catalogue. She sent me a photo of her research board for lots 26-39 (the collection of George and Eli Blackwell) and it’s stunning. She helped me focus on Richard Stone Reeves' portrait of Princequillo. She pointed out that “His dam was shipped to the United States when she was pregnant with him and there were serious U-boat (German submarine) threats at the time.”  Reeves said of his portrait, “He had what an artist likes to see; an attractive head, a big intelligent eye, and a long, heavy, full tail.”

Dickson's research board (Courtesy Chelsea Dickson)

I asked her which work of art is her favorite this year. This is akin to asking a person to pick out their favorite child or pet. She chose “A Gypsy Encampment” by Sir Alfred Munnings. “I think what sets Munnings’ Gypsy scenes apart is that he didn’t paint them for commercial gain. He was just painting what he loved to paint and the people who he enjoyed spending time with.” Dickson’s description of the painting is exquisite and reflects the care that she gives each piece. “Several caravans of varying colors make up the background with just a hint of a cloud-filled English sky above them. One the left side of the composition are three horses, the most prominent of which is a grey pony, one of Munnings’ favorite things to paint. A flock of chickens peck at the ground outside the main caravan. Women at work are scattered throughout the painting. They are at ease and comfortable, going about their daily tasks, just as Munnings might have been at ease while visiting their camp.”

There is no end to the amazing stories Dickson found while researching the paintings. Harry Hall’s “Fille de L’Air” is a delicate French-bred filly. Evidently there was a bitter rivalry involving France and Great Britain. The “Encyclopedia of British Horse Racing” had this salty description: “Downright hostility, however greeted the victory of Fille de L’Air, the first French owned winner of an English Classic, the 1864 Oaks. Some said that the horse had to be escorted to the winner’s circle by a group of hired prizefighters; others, that the jockey had to be protected by mounted police with drawn sabres as he attempted to weigh in.” Oh MY! This sweet little filly painted in a serene countryside certainly stirred up a tempest! Ooh la la! 

When one looks at “A Bedford Cottage Trial,” one must stop and take the time to study every square inch of the painting. It features Col. Hamish McCalmont and Captain James Octavius Machell (Bedford Cottage owner) on their stocky ponies surveying almost 30 Thoroughbreds and their riders at the historic Limekilns (a walking ground.)  Legend has it that trainer James Joseph Jewitt’s 8-year-old son looked at the painting and swiftly started naming each horse! You got to love a kid who can do that, and we all know that there is always that special kid at the track with that unique talent of identifying horses in the blink of an eye. It’s a great story for a great painting.

Finally, I was surprised to note the final painting that my dad flagged. It is a strong, muscular running horse in full stride called “Midnight Rider” by British artist Jo Taylor. His Parkinson’s disease-riddled body no longer allows him to visit the track. His palsied hands shake so that it is difficult for him to turn the page of a book. Yet, there is his simple torn piece of paper on page 164 of the catalogue marking the piece as his favorite. He has mentioned the painting several times since looking at it. “I really like the strength of the running horse. I like the simplicity of it. She really understands how a horse moves.” I suddenly understood why it is Dad’s favorite. Art transports us. Art brings us into a different world. We can share a pasture with sheep, a stream with cows, or gaze upon a champion. We are moved in unexpected ways.

Midnight Rider
"Midnight Rider" (Courtesy Cross Gate Gallery)

Artist Jo Taylor says, “It is pure instinct for me to work with the horse. Its unique power to nurture the soul is pivotal to my work … I am trying to put muscle down and breathe life into the work, so hopefully the viewer can feel as if they can see the other side of the beast in my work – as though they can walk around it.”

In Dad’s case, I feel that this painting speaks to his muscle memory. The memories of being a young healthy Marine who could run and jump and play. The memory of being a young man seeing himself running free and wild. Horses speak to us individually and carry us. They carry our dreams. They carry our hopes. The artists who portray them open doors to memories. Bless the artists of the past who captured our champions and the memories of life long ago. Kudos to the artists of today who are preserving our history and sharing the beauty of our world. If you are moved by a painting or a piece of art, take the time to study it and discover why.  It may be a shared bond between a father and daughter discovering that their love of horses goes far beyond the track.

The seventh annual Sporting Art Auction will be held Sunday, Nov. 17 at 4 p.m. ET at the Keeneland Sales Pavilion in Lexington, Ky.  Art may be viewed at The auction is a collaboration between Keeneland Association and Greg Ladd’s Cross Gate Gallery. This year’s auction features 189 high-quality lots featuring fine sporting art, American paintings, European artists and sculpture from renowned artists. It includes the collection of George and Eli Blackwell and several pieces by LeRoy Neiman. In years to come, Cross Gate Gallery’s Sporting Art Auction catalogues will be valued collectibles as are their auction offerings. Each is a treasure!   

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