British Museum blog

Horses: by royal appointment

Nigel Tallis, Exhibition Curator, British Museum

Royal Jubilee weekend is here. You may well be tuning in to watch the royal regatta work its way down the River Thames, or even going to watch the festivities in person.

We’re thinking royally right now at the British Museum, as we celebrate the opening of our new exhibition The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot. Her Majesty the Queen is the royal patron of the exhibition, whose great knowledge of horses is well known, but horses have been important to royalty for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Think of the royal family and horses and you’ll think of carriages on the way to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, of champion race-winners and the Queen’s own racing colours of purple, scarlet and gold. Aspects of these are all included in the exhibition and we also feature stories of royalty and their fascination with horses through the millennia.

Here’s a wonderful portrait medal by Pisanello, one of the first of its kind, showing the Byzantine or East Roman, emperor John VIII Palaeologus (1392–1448) riding a horse befitting a medieval monarch – interestingly, it was given to the Museum by another royal, the British King George IV (1738–1820).

Medal showing the emperor John VIII Palaeologus on horseback

The Amarna letters from New Kingdom Egypt – a group of clay tablets written in Babylonian cuneiform – form a diplomatic archive of letters sent to the kings of Egypt from fellow rulers in the Middle East. They vividly reflect how the possession of chariots and horses was a key indicator of prestige and status at the time.

Crop from the Amarna Letters, letter from Burnaburiash II to Amenhotep II

But kings haven’t always used horses for peaceful means. This 15th century manuscript painting shows a fierce cavalry battle between two much earlier Sasanian kings, Khusrow II and Bahram VI.

Battle between Khusrow II and Bahram VI

And here’s a charming drawing by Rembrandt, probably inspired by a set of Mughal miniatures. It’s thought to show another royal, Shah Jahan (reigned 1627-1658) riding on horseback.

A Mughal nobleman on horseback by Rembrandt

Don’t forget: if the exhibition is too busy to get into, you can see the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, riding on horseback and in a chariot, hunting lions in the famous reliefs which are the pinnacle of Assyrian art. They are on display in Room 17, throughout the exhibition’s run.


The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot is free and open from 24 May to 30 September 2012.

The exhibition is supported by the Board of Trustees of the Saudi Equestrian Fund, the Layan Cultural Foundation and Juddmonte Farms. In association with the Saudi
Commission for Tourism & Antiquities.

Filed under: The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Christopher Ash says:

    We really enjoyed this wonderful exhibition. We had one thought from cultural and religious history, which is that the phrase ‘the horse and its rider’ occurs in the song of the people of Israel in Exodus chapter 15 and resonates through the Old Testament as the theme that the people of God are called upon not to be impressed by the military might typified by horses, but rather to trust the Redeemer God who is able to throw these powerful and tyrannical weapons into the sea.


  2. bennythomas says:

    Horses have been always admired by art lovers all across the globe and all times. I remember my first visit to the British museum and the head of a horse taken from the east pediment of Parthenon. In ’89 I sketched it and I have ever since thought of my first confrontation with Greek art. The flaring nostrils and fine craftsmanship encapsulated the high point of Greek art ever since. In the blog posted I see Rembrand’s horse and it strikes me that he has got the pose wrongly. four-legged animals keep three legs on the ground at any given time.

    Cavemen Trump Modern Artists at Drawing Animals/ of Dec 5,2012 had an interesting article on this subject. It would seem paleolithic people living more than 10,000 years ago had a better artistic eye than modern painters and sculptures — at least when it came to watching how horses and other four-legged animals move.
    The “cavemen,” or people living during the upper Paleolithic period between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, only made mistakes 46.2 percent of the time in their depictions of four-legged animals walking than artists are today. Modern artists portray these animals walking incorrectly 57.9 percent of the time.
    Biological physicist Gabor Horvath, a researcher at Eotvos University in Hungary undertook a new study from examples of art from online collections, fine art books and Hungarian museums, as well as on stamps and coins. In the samples falling after prehistory but before Muybridge found 83.5 percent of depictions were wrong.
    Chance alone would dictate that artists mess up depictions of four-legged gait 73.3 percent of the time, the researchers calculated. One notable error included one sketch of a horse by Leonardo da Vinci, known for his anatomical sketches. In the sketch, the horse has its right-hind foot and left-front foot down with its other two feet lifted, an unstable position.


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