Horses in art: 30 wild muses plus the Angel of the South (UK)

A computer image of the sculpture, which will tower over the landscape in Swanscombe, Kent. AFP/GETTY IMAGES
A giant white horse as tall as the Statue of Liberty and Nelson's Column is to become southern England's answer to the Angel of the North, it has been announced. A computer image of the sculpture, the Angel of the South will tower over the landscape in Swanscombe, Kent. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Cross-posted from The Daily Telegraph


Mark Wallinger’s giant horse has been chosen as the winning design in the quest for the so-called “Angel of the South” and will soon dominate the landscape of north Kent, offering an equine welcome to visitors as they whiz past on the Eurostar trains. To mark the occasion, we take a canter through the greatest horses in art.

 Guernica by Picasso  Photo-GETTY
Guernica by Picasso Photo-GETTY

The horse in Guernica

At the heart of Picasso’s monumental depiction of the bombing of a northern Spanish town by the Nazis in 1937 stands the twisted, agonised figure of a horse, which has been pierced by a spear. The suffering of the townspeople all around is echoed in the human skull discernible in the shape of the horse’s nostrils and teeth.

The Rain Horse

“At the wood top, with the silvered grey light coming in behind it, the black horse was standing under the oaks, its head high and alert, its ears pricked, watching him.” Never has equine hostility been more effectively captured than in Ted Hughes’s short story about a walker menaced during a downpour on a treacherously muddy northern hillside.

The Guinness surf horses

Lloyd’s Bank’s black beauty may have enjoyed a longer screen life, but the best commercial with an equine element was Guinness’s black-and-white, 119-second epic of 1999 in which a curling, crashing wall of Hawaiian surf transmogrifies into a thundering stampede of wild white horses. Two years later, it was voted number one in Channel 4’s 100 Greatest TV Adverts.

Khartoum in The Godfather

In Mario Puzo’s bestselling Mob story, movie producer Jack Woltz makes the mistake of not acquiescing to a request from Don Corleone, with the result that he wakes up one morning to find himself in bed with the severed head of his prized stud. The white silk sheets are ruined for ever.

Patti Smith’s Horses

New York punk poet Smith looks rather equine herself on the cover of Horses, her incendiary debut album of 1975. The sprawling track Land is a savage, surreal and delirious odyssey, which takes off when “suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he’s being surrounded by/Horses, horses, horses, horses/Coming in in all directions/White shining silver studs with their nose in flames.”

“Coconuts” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

King Arthur “rides” up to an imposing castle as his trusty servant Patsy provides appropriate sound effects. The gatekeeper isn’t fooled, exclaiming: “You’re using coconuts!” There then follows a ludicrous debate about the logistics of tropical fruit being carried to temperate Mercia by migrating swallows.

 Film adaptation of Black Beauty, 1994  Photo-ALLSTAR/WARNER BROS/CINETEXT
Film adaptation of Black Beauty, 1994 Photo-ALLSTAR/WARNER BROS/CINETEXT

Black Beauty

“The autobiography of a horse, translated from the original equine by Anna Sewell,” claims the title page of the 1877 novel about the upbringing, career (as a London taxi-horse), love life (with the playful Ginger) and happy twilight years of the best-loved horse in literature.

Edwin Muir’s The Horses

“Barely a twelvemonth after/The seven days war that put the world to sleep,/Late in the evening the strange horses camee_SLps” Muir’s powerful poem presents a devastated post-apocalyptic world transformed by the arrival of an equine population that uncomplainingly pulls ploughs and provides transport – “Their coming our beginning”.

Mr Ed

In the American sitcom of the early Sixties, architect Wilbur Post finds that the previous owners of his new house have left behind a horse who engages him – and only him – in conversation. It was said the horse “playing” Mr Ed had peanut butter spread on his gums to make him move his lips, though it later emerged that his trainer tugged on a nylon wire at least some of the time.

The Byrds’ Chestnut Mare

“I’m gonna catch that horse if I can/And when I do I’ll give her my brand.” The Byrds’ strange country-rock epic about an elusive wild horse refers to her as “a fine lady” who will be “just like a wife”. Then things start getting really weird as they fly towards the sun, encounter exploding seagulls and end up in a mile-deep crevice.

 Whistlejacket by George Stubbs  Photo-BRIAN SMITH
Whistlejacket by George Stubbs Photo-BRIAN SMITH


George Stubbs’s massive, magnificent 1762 painting of a celebrated racehorse marks a radical break with convention by dramatically floating its equine subject in empty space – though there’s a theory that this is actually an unfinished equestrian portrait of George III, minus monarch and background landscape.


Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 biography re-established the Thirties horseracing legend in the American psyche. Hollywood followed her lead two years later to bring the story to the big screen, thrillingly placing us right in the middle of the thunderous racing action.

The Lascaux herd

Of the 600 verified depictions of animals on the walls of the Lascaux caves in central France more than half are horses leaping gracefully through what is, in effect, a 16,000-year-old comic strip.

The horses in Equus

In Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play, Alan, a seemingly well-adjusted stable lad is one night driven inexplicably to blind six horses: an overworked psychiatrist is charged with finding out why. Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe played Alan in the West End and last month(Sept) opened to rave reviews in the Broadway production.

Thelwell's ponies first appeared in PUNCH in 1953. Image-Thelwell Website
Thelwell's ponies first appeared in PUNCH in 1953. Image-Thelwell Website

Thelwell’s ponies

An acute observer of countryside ways, Punch cartoonist Norman Thelwell struck a chord with his first pony picture in 1953. The fan mail poured in and his niche for charming, gently humorous drawings of little girls and their reluctant mounts (each with “a leg at each corner”) was established.

Silver in The Lone Ranger

“Hi-yo Silver, away!” The long-running TV series boasted probably the best-known horseback battle-cry, uttered as the masked Texas Ranger gallops through the desert dust to dispense justice accompanied by his loyal companion Tonto (on his own horse Scout).

Pilgrim in The Horse Whisperer

After a bone-crunching accident, jittery rider Grace and her mount Pilgrim are whizzed across the States by Mom to Montana, where all three fall under the spell of tetchy, taciturn rancher Tom Booker.

America’s A Horse With No Name

The band America’s gentle, hippy anthem about a horseback journey through a scorched desert was actually written in rain-sodden Britain and features such memorably silly lines as, “The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz” and “The heat was hot.”

Rocinante in Don Quixote

The self-styled knight-errant expresses unbounded confidence in his skinny mount, fancying that “neither Alexander’s Bucephalus nor Cid’s Babieca was equal to him”. He then spends four days trying to think of what to call him, finally plumping for Rocinante, a name “lofty and sonorous”.

The mount in Napoleon Crossing the St Bernard Pass

With its rearing steed and heroic windswept rider, this is one of the most celebrated equestrian images in art, painted by Jacques-Louis David – in five versions – to mark the First Consul’s jaunt into Italy at the head of 40,000 troops in 1800.

Pi in National Velvet

In the 1944 movie adaptation of Enid Bagnold’s story, 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor stars as plucky Velvet Brown, who wins Pi in the village lottery and, with the help of trainer Mickey Rooney, eventually gallops to glory in the Grand National. Heart-warming to heart-stopping excitement.

Champion the Wonder Horse

“The time will come when everyone will know/The name of Champion the Wonder Horse!” The Fifties television series is memorable more for its rollicking theme song than its tales of a wild stallion repeatedly required to rescue his hapless 12-year-old friend Ricky.

Shadowfax in The Lord of the Rings

“Shadowfax, the lord of all horses,” murmurs wise old wizard Gandalf warmly as his beloved silver-grey stallion – the swiftest steed in Middle-Earth – trots into view.

 The Uffington white horse  Photo-AP
The Uffington white horse Photo-AP

Uffington White Horse

Why Britain’s oldest hillside figure was cut into the chalky slopes of the Berkshire Downs 3,000 years ago remains a mystery, although it’s said that, since the elegant galloping creature can be properly appreciated only from the air, it was created for the bird’s-eye view of the gods.

The Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels

They’re sophisticated intellectuals who practise eugenics, prize reason above all else, and have no word for “lie”. And they’re horses. Once Gulliver has persuaded the Houyhnhnms that he’s not the scruffy human-like Yahoo they mistake him for, he feels more at home than anywhere on his travels – until they banish him back to Europe.

The White Horses

A teatime TV favourite in the late Sixties, imported from Europe by the BBC and over-dubbed, White Horses featured the adventures of Belgrade schoolgirl Julia, who holidays on the stud farm where her Uncle Dimitri trains Lipizzaners. The theme song went top-10 in 1968.

Trigger (1)

Warbling cowboy Roy Rogers’s palomino buddy starred with him in more than 100 films and was immortalised in the song A Four-Legged Friend (“He’ll never let you down”). Forty three years after his death, the stuffed figure of Trigger is the star attraction at the Rogers museum in Branson, Missouri, which draws 200,000 visitors a year.

Trigger (2)

“One lunchtime Ted saw Ernie’s horse and cart outside her door/It drove him mad to find it was still there at half past four.” That horse was Trigger, who, according to Benny Hill’s 1971 number-one hit Ernie, pulled “the fastest milkcart in the west”.

Hercules in Steptoe and Son

Domiciled in Oil Drum Lane with the eternally warring rag-and-bone men Albert and Harold, Hercules was seen every week in the opening credits, accompanied by the suitably plodding theme tune Old Ned.

The Wooden Horse

Despite playing a key role in this tense Second World War POW-camp drama, the eponymous hero is distinctly lacking in noble mien – and the acting’s a bit creaky. >>

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