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).
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.
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.
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.
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.