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Telling 'Tales From The Turf' At The Speed Museum

Erica Peterson

The paintings of thoroughbred horses in the exhibit “Tales from the Turf,” which opened Friday for a three-month run at the Speed Museum, may seem very familiar to many visitors — by where they’ve seen them before.

Maybe in the Turf Club at Churchill Downs. Or the Clubhouse at Keeneland. Or hung in the study of a traditional Kentucky home with cherry-paneled walls and antique reading lamps.

And, indeed, it is in exactly those kinds of places that curator Erika Holmquist-Wall found many of the pieces for the show.

But now the Speed has hung them in an order that tells a tale of high-blooded horses in Kentucky. It’s a story of how livestock farmers became breeders, and good grazing land became stunning horse farms — where valuable stallions rule all they may survey.

And that’s where Edward Troye comes in.

“Troye was born in Switzerland, but studied in England and then came on to America, finding his way to Kentucky,” says Holmquist-Wall. “He made a kind of business out of painting horses, especially the stallions the breeders were wishing to promote.”

Which is exactly how it’s done today in the high-stakes thoroughbred breeding business. Except in the early 19th Century, when Kentucky was just growing up its horse business, there was no brilliant color photography or high-definition video, as today, to promote the farms and their mares and stallions. Troye, and other painters represented in the show, filled the need, and more — leaving behind art that’s beyond mere advertising illustration.

We Hate The British And Want To Be Just Like Them

Troye (1808-1874) painted in the style of famous English painters like George Stubbs, and later Alfred Munnings. A framed Troye painting in Kentucky would be regarded in the same way as a Stubbs in Great Britain. And the subjects would be the same: horses, dogs, cows, donkeys … even cats.

“Paintings of animals were really popular in the early 19th Century, kind of romantic painting,” says Holmquist-Wall, as she points out a trio of paintings from Britain. One is a scene of a boy at a rural fair, with workhorses, and a dog scampering about. The next is a horse in a pasture, its natural setting. And the third is horses racing, with spectators now in the picture, along the rail.

“You have this interest in animal art, with painters like Stubbs and James Wall taking it along, and then John Sartorius, who is painting a racing scene — so it’s kind of a documentary — ideas and movements that wanted to come together.”

Holmquist-Wall notes that the landed Virginians, who came on to settle Kentucky, had come from Great Britain. They fought Britain to gain independence and were now seeking to establish their own identity in America — but still looking back from whence they’d come.

“The Virginians fancy themselves as gentlemen farmers and they’re looking to the Brits,” explains Holmquist-Wall. “They’re most recent enemies, of course, but how do you cultivate an identity? Establish an image of ones self? Basically, how do you do it?

“Well,” she continued, “the first thing is a gentleman farmer has dogs and horses. And you have your land set up so it looks like the Brits. All this influence starts coming out. And at the same time these British paintings were crossing over the Atlantic, coming to America and being collected by Americans.”

And, again, that’s where Troye and other painters come in — as America nurtured its own art and artists. Virginians and Kentuckians were adorning their studies with modest-sized paintings of horses and hunting hounds, while in the North big wall spaces were being cleared to hang monumental Hudson River Valley style paintings.

Sticking with his style, Troye painted every major Kentucky horse of the day, including the foundation sire Lexington, and Lexington’s sons Kentucky, Norfolk and Asteroid. The most popular horses got more than one canvas from Troye, painting for multiple buyers. (Just like Monet never ran out of lily pads and Van Gogh saw plenty of starry nights.)

Troye and the others were very naturalistic in painting the sculpted bodies of thoroughbreds. Sleek and fleet. And you see that in the show. But viewers will quickly note that the heads are not as realistic. They’re long and exaggeratedly slender. That’s an idealized look of the day. Conformation should be correct, but the heads should be elegantly dished, as if rich in blood of Arab stallions.

The eyes, on the other hand, look right at the viewer, projecting a lofty “look of eagles.”

A Bad Day At The Sale For Johnny Reb

The “Tales from the Turf” show includes three Troye portraits of Asteroid, the undefeated racehorse and famous stallion. Two are hung side by side, and in both of them Troye includes a group of mounted, gray-coated horsemen galloping across a field in the distance, referencing the stallion’s kidnapping by Confederate raiders during the Civil War.

Asteroid’s owner sent out riders to look for the horse, and when they found him, the horsemen negotiated a ransom of $250 to get the horse back. The rescuers told the Rebels the horse had no real value but the owner was sentimental about it as a pet — conveniently leaving out the part about Asteroid being one of the top stallions in the world.

Which proved, once again, that outsiders stand little chance when buying and selling horses in Kentucky.

As Troye’s fame grew, the painter picked up a patron in Bluegrass horseman Alexander Keene Richards, who built Troye a studio and stocked him with commissions. Keene Richards even took Troye along with him on an overseas tour to see the horse operations in Arabia and the Middle East. Troye painted a portrait of the Sultan of Turkey’s favorite horse. He also painted a picture of Keene Richards dressed in Bedouin garb, holding a racehorse. Both are in the Speed show.

‘Modern-Day’ Racing

Patrons for whom the horse portraits might, by this time, be looking a little too much like the Turf Club, need only turn a corner in the gallery to find newer “Tales from the Turf.”

The story takes on a racing-age feel. The second half of the 19th Century and into the 20th (the show goes up to the year 1950) finds the advent of “modern” racetracks, and horse racing as a major spectator sport.

Mark your timeline with the death of Edward Troye in 1874 and the founding of the Kentucky Derby in 1875, then march forward through horse history. This is a time of famous jockeys, owners and trainers — and matinee-idol racehorses.

We encounter three from the Speed’s own collection:

  • An 1838 painting of the Oakland Racecourse, Louisville’s first major track.
  • The original Latonia Race Course, in Covington, Ky., with high Ohio River hills in the background.
  • A Currier and Ives print of 1881 Kentucky Derby winner Hindoo, one of the greatest Derby winners. It’s a small treasure.

The Oakland course was located west of today’s 7th and Magnolia streets, and was apparently a very festive racing venue.

“You see the road in front of the clubhouse and all the carriages and people coming and going on race day,” says Holmquist-Wall. “The racetrack is beyond, in the distance. The focus here is very clearly on people and the occasion. Documenting the moment.”

Displayed with the painting of Old Latonia are the brushes and pallet of its painter, Charles W. Waite.

“This painting was hanging in a tavern in Covington for about 80 years,” says Holmquist-Wall. “The artist traded it to the tavern owner to settle a long-building bar tab. We purchased it and sent it to a conservator who took off about 80 years of nicotine.”

I particularly enjoyed the paintings of gamblers and spectators by artist Lee Townsend. These are people who very clearly will not be occupying the Royal Box at Ascot. Look for a charcoal picture titled “Bookmaker T.J. Shaw.” All the men in the ring are wearing the same kind of hats. It’s neat.

‘The mostest hoss’

Then there’s Man o’ War, with his longtime groom Will Harbut – captured in two far-different paintings by Vaughn Flannery.

One is a very “emotive” scene in the stall, with horse and groom. Harbut was a wonderful storyteller, speaking for “Big Red” with the thousands of visitors who came to see the horse at Faraway Farm, near Lexington. The faithful groom assured everyone that Man o’ War was “the mostest hoss.”

The other, in brighter oils, is Harbut leading Man o’ War out of the barn into the sunshine.

Two more to mention: One, because he’s the subject of controversy today, is Gen. John B. Castleman and Carolina, the saddlebred mare he bred, stepping into the spotlight as they capture the championship of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. It is Carolina that is the horse depicted in the much-vandalized statue of Castleman on Cherokee Road.

The other is a Morris painting of Whirlaway, at Santa Anita Park, in California. Most fans know 1941 Triple Crown champion Whirlaway was primarily raced in the east by Calumet Farm.

So the Santa Anita setting seems odd.

But it’s back to the beginning, says Holmquist-Wall.

“Just as Troye was painting the portraits of famous stallions to enhance their stature,” she explains, “that’s exactly the same with Whirlaway, being painted by a great artist in an important horse-buying state as he is about to conclude his racing career and head to on to be a stallion in Kentucky.”

It’s about capturing “Mr. Longtail” (and you can see how long Whirlaway’s tail is in the Morris painting) in the best light.

Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse" is on display at the Speed Museum through March 1, 2020. For more information, visit speedmuseum.org.

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