Some years ago artist Julia Midgley came across the skeleton of the 1900 Grand National winner Ambush in the then Museum of Liverpool Life, Liverpool. She included a drawing of it in an etching she was working on at the time, called ‘Seen on Merseyside’.
“Ambush [pictured above] won the Grand National in 1900 and was the last royal horse to win the race,” Julia explains. “Bred in Ireland 1894 he was owned by the Prince of Wales – the future Edward V11. Ambush was trained and ridden by Algy Anthony carrying 11 stone 3 lbs to beat into third place the great Manifesto who had won the race in 1897 and 1899, placed third again in 1902 and 1903.“
The skeleton of Ambush was given to Liverpool Museum in 1961 by the University of Liverpool’s Veterinary School. “It is mounted and articulated in a galloping pose, which gives the skeleton an impressive striking presence,” says Julia. “Whilst drawing the skeleton, which was on public display in the museum, I discovered that visiting school children all thought or assumed that it was the skeleton of a dinosaur!”
The scale of the skeleton and its shape in bare bones did indeed look rather dinosaur-like and the children’s interest along with the process of drawing set off a spark in a line of thought that had been bubbling away at the root of Julia’s work since childhood.
“My mother had horses in her background and although not wealthy we managed to keep ponies. I benefited from being the youngest of three, so when we gave a home to a 15.3hh Irish three-quarter-bred blue roan my elder siblings bore the brunt of his idiosyncratic independent nature. By the time I was riding him he had become a good eventer and Inter Branch team member.
“Art School and a subsequent career took me away from home and horses but they remained in my work as a lifelong influence and an important part of my upbringing.”
Julia became interested in horse physiology early on: “Pony Club tests made us learn about basic equine anatomy. Many of the books I read were horse themed: two favourite non-fiction books were John Skeaping’s ‘How to Draw Horses’*, and ‘The Book of the Horse’**. This latter contained a chapter about the horse in Art which introduced me at a very young age not only to Leonardo da Vinci and Delacroix, but more contemporary works by Gauguin, Degas, Seurat, and Franz Marc. Naturally I read many other subjects and played other sports but horses were lodged in my consciousness.”
Horses came to feature frequently in Julia’s work: “The personal pieces tend to use horses metaphorically, for example to represent struggle a muscular horse pulling an invisible load uphill was placed centre-stage. Often themes refer to art history, and, observations of curious objects from sketchbook records. One particular piece placed historical equine sculptures of note alongside family ponies and ornaments all mounted on plinths. My collection of Wade white porcelain miniature horses have appeared frequently whilst more recently my late mother’s miniature lead huntsmen and women have appeared in a series of etchings and small paintings.”
However, her interest in anatomy remained at the heart of her work and became a fundamental factor in another major part of her career: documentary drawing, often with an anatomical or medical theme.
“Most of my work concerns anatomy, and movement utilising people and horses. A human skeleton was kept in my office during teaching years at Art School. Throughout my student and professional years the Life Room played an important role.
“Reportage or documentary projects take place when I have been commissioned as an artist in residence. Most of my professional practice has been devoted to this activity. At the beginning I was sent to record the workings of factories, then sports venues including The Grand National 1994 and 1995, and The All England Lawn Tennis Championships, Wimbledon.
“Apart from horses, medicine has been another lifelong interest. From 1997–99 I was Artist in Residence at The Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospital Trust recording medicine as it was practised in a busy teaching hospital at the turn of the century. A National touring exhibition resulted, as well as the first of several publications illustrating such projects.
“Some twelve years later, having worked at Stonehenge, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and Granada Television in the interim, I grew increasingly conscious of wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan. Contact was made with the MOD and military medical services together with The Royal College of Surgeons of England and in 2012 work began on War Art & Surgery.
“This project recorded with drawings the training of military medical personnel before their deployment to Afghanistan, and, the rehabilitation of wounded servicemen and women at Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, Headley Court, Surrey. War Art & Surgery was a First World War Centenary project which juxtaposed Henry Tonks’ WW1 pastel portraits of recovering soldiers with my modern day drawings of 21st Century military medicine.”
The horse skeleton spark which had been slowly burning away in Julia’s closet blazed into life again last year when she received a commission to make a large equine piece. “Having been working on medical subject matter for several years I felt that I should go back to basics and re-acquaint myself with equine rather than human anatomy.
“I found that as an artist who has drawn human and animal skeletons all my working life the lessons are still as relevant today as decades ago. The point for me is that it is impossible to make a credible drawing of any living creature or being without knowledge of its structure.”
In seeking to revisit the equine ensembles Julia discovered there are actually three intact articulated horse skeletons on Merseyside. “As well as Ambush there is a pony [pictured above] at the University of Liverpool’s Veterinary School, Leahurst Campus; and Manifesto himself whose skeleton is held in the University of Liverpool’s Special Collections and Archives.
“Both institutions generously extended a welcome to my request and gave permission for me to spend a day drawing each skeleton. So within a short period of time I was able to work directly from three skeletons, which provided an ideal preparation for the commission that had initiated this course of research.
“However my interest in significant equine skeletons had been stimulated to the extent that I wanted to find more of them to record as an archive of equine achievement.”
To record these three skeletons Julia followed her usual working method of drawing on paper. “Choosing a particular paper is my first priority, what colour, weight, texture, which paper is most appropriate for the subject matter on a given day? Having selected the support then depending on the subject matter I work with pencil, or pen and ink.
“For colour, acrylic inks are first choice, they are bright, can be used with a dip pen and dry rapidly. Watercolour is a favourite too especially for sensitive or delicate subjects. I am an artist who prefers to work with line first; washes are used to provide body as well as lending a sense of movement.”
To date, Julia’s equine skeleton drawings include:
Eclipse [pictured above]“The great Eclipse was never beaten when he ran between 1769–1770. His descendants include Kauto Star and Desert Orchid. Research analysing Eclipse’s skeleton found that his legendary speed may have been due to ‘averageness’ – ‘Rather than being some freak of nature with incredible properties, he was actually just right in absolutely every way.’ (RVC press office) The skeleton is held in the collection of The Royal Veterinary College, Hatfield Campus who kindly granted access and provided much help and information.”
Hyperion [pictured above]“The National Horseracing Museum similarly granted permission for me to spend the day drawing their skeleton of Hyperion (1930–1960). Hyperion was owned by the Earl of Derby and won the Epsom Derby and St Leger. He was the most successful British-bred Twentieth Century sire, standing at only 15.1 hands high. The drawing of Hyperion resulting from my day in Newmarket has had a good year in its own right having been shortlisted for the 2016 Derwent Drawing Prize and been exhibited in London and at Trowbridge Arts Centre where it is available to see until 19th November. I was delighted that this particular piece received recognition.”
RA Ecorche (a sculpture of a horse with the skin removed to display the musculature)
“Although not strictly speaking a skeleton this stunning plaster cast of a horse which stands with statuesque dignity in the Royal Academy of Art’s Life Room in London could not really be omitted from the project. Research is in train to learn the background story of the ecorche but it is very similar to that used by Stubbs in the 18th Century for his anatomical studies of horses.”
Still Seeking More Skeletons
Given the choice, which horses would Julia’s ‘fantasy skeleton’ line-up feature?: “From ancient history I would choose Bucephalus, the legendary war horse who belonged to Alexander the Great. From modern times I would choose Red Rum whose Aintree story never fails to move me. I did meet and draw Red Rum looking out of his stable at Aintree in 1993 just before he was due to lead the parade.”
However, with those two permanently unavailable, Julia has set her sights on other famous horse skeletons as a continuation of her project: “Most of the skeletons I have drawn to date belonged to racehorses. However I am keen to include horses of significance from different backgrounds, for example next year the intention is to record Marengo, the mount of Napoleon 1st of France. A small Arabian grey only 14.1 hands high his skeleton is held in the National Army Museum, London. The Museum is due to reopen next spring following refurbishment.”
Julia is also looking for other equine skeletons or ecorches which are articulated / intact. “They should belong to horses of significance from any background. I have heard there was once a horse skeleton at Oundle School, which wore leather boots over its hooves. The horse had pulled the cricket ground roller, the leather shoes protected the grass. There will be many from pit ponies to police horses which have been preserved, and I would love to hear about them.”
Currently, the project and subsequent collection of drawings are still a work in progress. High quality archival reproductions have been produced of ‘Hyperion’ and ‘Eclipse’ and displayed at Charity exhibitions. “These were received with considerable interest leading people to tell stories of other skeletons and their stories.
“Once a large enough portfolio has been created then I intend to exhibit the drawings together in galleries and museums. Approaches will be made to institutions from early next year with a view to exhibiting the project from say mid 2018. If enough funding is generated a fully illustrated catalogue will be published to accompany the exhibition. I would hope to tour the exhibitions to venues around the country, both in the visual arts and equine sectors.”
Currently signed archival reproductions of the drawings of ‘Hyperion’ and ‘Eclipse’ are available for sale. Once the works are displayed the originals and further signed prints will be offered for sale, the income from which will help fund project costs.
Do you know of a significant equine skeleton just waiting to be captured on paper? If so, please contact Julia via email [email protected] or via her website www.juliamidgley.co.uk Julia’s studio is in Cheshire and visitors are welcome by appointment. Details are on the website.
* from The Studio Ltd How to Draw series, 1941–1954.
** published by Nicholson & Watson, London, 1946.