The sport of kings is renowned for the grace, poise and speed of its principal athletes, the horses themselves. However a new exhibition seeks to explore similar themes and draw unusual parallels with the sport and pastime of ice skating.
Opening on 15 November 2018 at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art in Newmarket, Skating will present a fascinating collection of 30 works from the past 400 years, ranging from 17th-century Flemish painting and Victorian panoramic scenes to 20th-century photographs (including those taken by the iconic Bassano studio), vintage skates and Pathé films.
In 1605 James I chanced upon the village of Newmarket whilst out hunting and recognised the open, flat Suffolk plains as an ideal location upon which to race his string of horses. Subsequently, the town came to be regarded as the epicentre of the British horse racing industry – but the nearby rivers, fens and waterways also provided an alternative transportation network and source of sporting endeavour in the teeth of winter.
Skating’s selection of Flemish Old Masters reveals glimpses into how people living in Flanders during the 17th-century used frozen waterways as a means of going about their business, and having some fun at the same time. Cornelis Beelt’s Skaters on a Frozen River (c. 1660, Colchester and Ipswich Museums) shows two gentlemen chatting as they casually move towards the viewer, whilst a horse patiently waits to pull a sled across the ice.
Anthonie Verstraelen’s 1640 sketch, simply titled Ice Scene and on loan from a private collection, shows a group of wealthy, or noble people,gathering on the shore of a river to enjoy some leisurely skating. It is a faintly comical scene, as the gentleman of acouple in the centre of the picture appears to be about to lose his balance, as his wife looks on with a look of embarrassment and horror upon her quickly drawn visage.
Charles Cundall’s 1933 watercolour, Skaters on the Mill Pond at Beaulieu(private collection), shows how this painting tradition continued into the 20th-century, but it is the series of photographs by Bassano and a collection of later Victorian lantern slides that demonstrate how skating wasn’t just a social pastime, but was also both a sporting and artistic endeavour in its own right.