Men I Have Painted/The King's Horses
THE KING'S HORSES
DEAN SWIFT, in that philosophic treatise called Gulliver's Travels, ostensibly written to amuse children, but in reality to ridicule the foibles of men, has placed the horse above men, or Yahoos, as he facetiously called them. I cannot do wrong, then, by including, with the men I have painted, some studies and observations I have made of those noble and distinguished creatures that live in the Royal Mews, behind Buckingham Palace, and known popularly as the "creams," or the State ponies.
Among the old titles of nobility in Russia is knias, a word that derives from kongne, a horse, and this title, knias, was given to the brothers of the king. Châteaubriand has said that all nobility comes from the horse. If the tradition of words is worth anything at all, and there is little doubt that words do give a truer insight into the past than most historians think, we have to conclude that Châteaubriand is right. Without pursuing the matter farther back than the French language, we find that the horse has always been associated with warriors, and from this warrior caste, and this only, nobility has been derived—the term chivalrous (chevalresque) meaning all that is elevated and refined in conduct. And it is a no less striking commentary upon the estimation given to the aristocratic horse that the followers of that King of England who was unfortunate because of his virtues rather than his vices—Charles I—were called "cavaliers," in distinction to the opposite and plebeian party, who were designated by the coarse and contemptuous name of "roundheads." That is, Swift would have described the followers of Cromwell and Milton—that rebellious poet who imagined a revolution in heaven—Yahoos, while the long-haired cavaliers would have been more to the refined taste of Gulliver, who, after a long sojourn as the guest of the Houyhnhnms in the odour of clover and sweet hay, on his return home was unable to bear the presence of his wife and children because they smelt so abominably.
And as long hair, arranged in curls, was also at some periods affected by the noble cavaliers, so likewise the pure-bred Arabs are never docked and hogged, but wear their tails and manes long and flowing. This fashion is also a mark of the high office of the King's "creams," for as their service is to draw His Majesty's coach on state occasions, their manes and tails are dressed as carefully as a woman's hair; and when the gorgeous trappings are put on their backs, the most elaborate silken cords are woven in and out of the manes as adornments that add colour and lustre to the august processions of coronation days.
The following extracts from letters written at the time these studies were being made at the Royal Mews will describe more accurately than I can from memory the King's horses:—
Hotel Great Central, London.
November 9, 1911.
I was very well received by Captain Nicholas at the Royal Stables at Buckingham Palace. He has put the state coach and the cream-coloured horses at my service, giving me, in fact, the freedom of the stables and the coach-house. He was good enough to indicate particularly "Pistachio" and "Vanilla" as fine animals. The latter has a coat like floss silk. The stables are very large and roomy and warm, so that I shall be exceedingly comfortable, and expect to enjoy myself immensely among the horses and the grooms.
To-day has been beautiful and bright, but the sudden change to cold has shrivelled up all the people.
I had a long day over at the stables yesterday, and worked there again this morning. The horses look very well in the courtyard when the sun shines on them.
Buckingham Palace Hotel, London, S.W.
Thursday, 4.30 p.m.
A dark day! Four sketches of the horses are the result of the day's work. It seems droll enough that I should be drawing horses! They turned on the electric light so that I could continue after dark, and that enabled me to get in an outline or two. This morning I finished a drawing of "Crown Prince," who will be decked out in gay harness for me next Monday. I am inclined to come home to-morrow evening in the five o'clock train, and leave early on Monday morning so as to reach the Mews at one o'clock. There is nothing new to tell you: everything was very quiet and peaceful in the stables. There are eleven creams in all, and more at Hampton Court, where they are bred.
November 15, 1911.
Another day is nearly gone, and there are two sketches—a view of the side of the coach, and a more elaborated study than usual of "Vanilla." This horse has a coat like floss silk: another has wavy hair on its legs which resembles without colour the markings on a zebra. To-day was visitors' day, and I had to stop work at half-past two. I did the coach first, and when the stables were in order worked on the horse. The grooms are very attentive, and look after me well. One stands by to keep the horse in order. Captain Nicholas came through the stables to-day, greeting me cheerily as he passed with some foreign person. He said he would take care of me. The old porter at the entrance to the Mews is the father-in-law of the head groom, Slack. The two men are very genial characters. It seems that many years ago Queen Victoria presented a History of the Painters of England to the porter, and he gave it to his son-in-law, who faithfully read it. He knows all about Reynolds and Gainsborough, and goes frequently to the National Gallery to see the masterpieces. This will amuse Clara. To-morrow I shall work in the courtyard, where the creams are to be exercised, from 10 to 11.30; after that the harness will be put on "Crown Prince" for me.
What an amusing paper is the Daily Sketch, that Clara has sent me! How jubilant they all are! I dread Balfour's exit rather than Law's entrance. What a good omen his name bears! George R. Sims is bound to use it as dressing to his "Mustard and Cress."
November 15, 1911.
The days go by very quickly while I am at work, but the evenings are long. When the work is done, and I leave the gateway of the stables, I suddenly bethink me, with a rather unpleasant mingling of surprise and depression, that I am not going home, but to the hotel.
It is not a very large hotel. It seems to be filled with old-fashioned families from the country; but I am not sure—they may be Londoners, out of servants.
The Royal Stables are spacious, one on each side of the great courtyard. To the right are installed the eight creams and eight blacks, on the left are the carriage horses, fine tall bays. To-day was visitors' day, and before I left a great many people were strolling in.
The sires of these horses were given to the young Queen Victoria by the King of Hanover. They are stout, dimpled creatures, with pink faces and pale eyes. The coach was used at the coronation of King George III, about 1760. There should be a history of the horses in the offices of the stables, and I shall ask Captain Nicholas for it when I see him again.
It is a great business, this stable-keeping, for the King. An army of men look after the horses and coaches, and the place must be filled with their families. I hear the voices of children everywhere.
Yesterday I had almost decided to return to Warwick this evening, but to-day was clear, until late in the afternoon, and I worked on in the stables until nearly five o'clock.
The result of the four days' work is ten pastel drawings and one sketch in oil. The horses grow to be more beautiful every day. They are queer creatures, just like some old Chinese emperor who never shows himself to the world. They live a secluded and exclusive life, so that the public may be awed into wonderment when they appear with all their gorgeous trappings on. I believe they are the only aristocrats left in England! And they have such ugly red-pink noses and small, pale eyes!
The grooms are all very ordinary-looking men, mostly young, but the head groom is a man of forty—very small and very capable.
The horses are docile and mannerly. They are trained first at Hampton Court, and afterwards in London. There are eleven here, and I do not know how many at Hampton Court.
Next Monday the gala harness is to be put on "Crown Prince." It is a great undertaking, for his mane has to be plaited. When the harness is on, very little of the horse can be seen.
November 20, 1911.
When I entered the stables this morning there were four men at work dressing "Crown Prince" and putting the last touches on his toilet. Slack, the head groom, was perched up on a high bench, so that he could reach the mane of the gorgeously bedecked aristocrat. The horse seemed to be smothered in red and gold and purple, and, in the subdued light of the stable, looked more magnificent than he does in the street, when he is drawing the state coach.
I started work at once, and did not stop an instant until after half-past five. The result is four sketches—a large head, a front view, a back view, and the study in oils. The horse was fretting and fuming at the finish, but I was sorry I could not go on all night. You have no idea of the beauty of the great creature in his trappings.
They allowed me to watch the disrobing. The purple rosettes were taken from the mane, and the mane was taken out of plait, and slowly and carefully all the heavy harness was taken off. When the bridle was pulled from him his face gleamed out pale and pink, with two small, angry eyes shining in the glimmer of the electric light hanging just over him.
November 22, 1911.
I have just come in from the stables, where I made three more sketches, this time of the horses' heads, which are more difficult than their tails. It seems almost presumptuous in me to attempt, without any former and prolonged experience in the drawing of animals, this kind of work; and to begin on the bodies of those precious aristocrats, the "cream" of society among horses, the exclusive eight, as it were, is like putting sacrilegious and unblessed hands upon things that are holy. The fool gets more out of life than the angel, I shrewdly suspect, and always when there is some "wit" closely allied to his fooling.
The noble "Pistachio" has been holding a levée, and while his royal nose was being wiped, his mane brushed and combed, and his sleek and glossy coat rubbed down by the deft and diminutive Slack, his portrait was painted, in the presence of a small company of gentlemen-in-waiting, or grooms of the chamber. The unusual experience created a biting appetite towards the end of the sitting, for he began to yawn, to whinny, and at last to neigh imperatively for his oats, which, after much teasing by the sieve-bearer, were given him.
Three sketches were made in two hours. I really should have made more.
November 23, 1911.
The horses were out exercising this morning, but the wind was so strong and cold that I dared not stand to work. After watching them march and manœuvre for ten or fifteen minutes, I retreated into the warm stables and chatted with the manager, or whatever his official designation may be. He has promised to rig out a groom, or postilion, in his state dress, so that I may make a study of him as he appears on coronation days and the opening of Parliament.
I went to the Scala last evening and stayed until the coronation procession was put on the screen. After all, the horses appear but twice, and for a few seconds only. The second time is when the sword is presented to the King, and the royal carriage then takes up the whole of the picture, and the horses are blotted out. The manager of the theatre told me I might find almost anything at 82, Wardour Street, so I am going there to look over the films and pictures.
Yesterday a young porter at the gates told me he had taken pictures of the state coach, and I bought two. They are very sharp indeed, and show every detail. Next month, when the coach is taken out to wash, I shall get him to take a picture of it in the position I require. He will also take the horses for me as they are exercised in the luggage van.
February 14, 1912.
The day at the stables has been one of the most interesting I have ever known. The horses were quietly magnificent, and the processes of harnessing and dressing exceedingly entertaining and instructive. After the return from the opening of Parliament, there was a little more hurry and a little less form in getting rid of the gold lace; but even that made a picture in the stables, in the dull afternoon light, that I shall remember for long. It has been a full day, and I hope to be able to make good use of what I saw.