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Horse Power



Inspired by Hamish Mackies’ striking equine sculpture at Berkeley’s new Goodman’s Fields development, we explore the long-standing relationship between man and horse, as chronicled and celebrated in art throughout history

Words Tessa Pearson

Suspended in motion, all sinew and rippling muscle, the six imposing bronze horses placed as if hurtling through the slender towers of Berkeley’s seven-acre Goodman’s Fields development are the work of British wildlife sculptor, Hamish Mackie. A master of his craft, Mackie was commissioned by Berkeley to create a piece of art that would bring alive the history of the Aldgate site, where, in the 16th century, a Mr Goodman leased out his farmland as grazing for London’s hardworking livery horses. Renowned for his ability to capture the essence, movement and energy of wild animals in their natural habitat, Mackie’s task was to create a piece that embodied the profound beauty of the animate horse, while linking the contemporary new property with its plot’s humble past.

Both a nod to the city’s history of trade and a glorious celebration of the equine form, Mackie’s spectacular sculptures perfectly showcase the paradoxical nature of man’s longstanding relationship with the horse. From as early as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries BC, equus has been both exploited and revered. Artefacts from the fourth century BC depict the fierce, nomadic tribes of the Steppes, who lived off horse meat and buried their leaders surrounded by their slaughtered horses. Decorative carvings from the fifth and sixth century BC show how the ancient Greeks employed wild asses as battering rams in combat, in order to break down their enemies’ front lines. From the violent chariot races of latter day ancient Rome to the Palio de Sienna and the Great War, our long-suffering equine comrades are omnipresent throughout art history.

Despite this, relatively few artists have have chosen to dedicate their energies to the horse alone. Leonardo Da Vinci created obsessive equines studies in the 15th century, matched only by the eye of 18th-century English painter and printmaker George Stubbs, a horse portraitist who fused art and science with his groundbreaking work The Anatomy of the Horse: 24 engraved plates representing eight years’ study and labour, published in 1766. Entirely self-taught, Stubbs’ artistic skill was founded on a thorough knowledge of anatomy, but at the time, his subject matter was deemed too lowly to gain him significant artistic acclaim. Eminent works that followed in the 19th and 20th century include Theodore Gericault’s dynamic equine portraits, Degas’ lively race day scenes, Franz Marc’s primitive Little Yellow Horses (1912) and Picasso’s disturbing Guernica (1937): a roll call of varied and memorable depictions of the horse and all it represents. 

Fast-forward to the present day and, with Nic Fiddian-Green’s colossal sculptures appearing at prominent landmarks and prestigious events across the UK and further afield, it’s hard to imagine that Stubbs’ favoured subject incited disdain from his contemporaries. Fiddian-Green has been obsessed with the equine head for three decades, inspired by a carving of the Horse of Selene, the moon goddess, from the fifth century BC. The British sculptor was responsible for the 18-ton bronze of a horse's head temporarily installed at London’s Marble Arch in 2010. Similar works of varying sizes have graced Goodwood, Glyndebourne and the main grandstand at Royal Ascot. Unsurprisingly, Fiddian-Green’s work is highly sought after, with his largest pieces fetching up to £1.5 million and attracting illustrious patrons and celebrity collectors worldwide. 

And, while the utilitarian horse all but died out after World War I, the link between man, horse and money lives on. In 2014, Scotland unveiled The Kelpies: the world’s largest pair of equine sculptures, as part of a regeneration project designed to boost tourism in and around Falkirk. The 30-metre-high Clydesdale heads are the work of Glaswegian sculptor Andy Scott, and serve as a tribute to the role the heavy horse has played in Scottish trade and industry over time. Back in London, the latest addition to Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth Project is Gift Horse, by German-American artist Hans Haacke. His skeletal, riderless horse - inspired by an engraving by George Stubbs - is fitted with a ticker of the latest London stock prices and was described by mayor Boris Johnson as “a startlingly original comment on the relationship between art and commerce”. Ekow Eshun, chair of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, said of the piece: “It asks questions about the role of money and power in modern London.”

However, you interpret the message, there’s no denying its gravitas. Mastered and shaped by man over thousands of years, the horse has been a weapon, a pawn and a tool in our advancement. The symbolism is inescapable. However, despite the weight of history, artists are still seeking out ways to reinterpret and reimagine the subject and all it embodies. Award-winning photographer Tim Flach spent seven years travelling the world in order to capture and chronicle his subject in a fresh light for his book, Equus. On the diversity of forms depicted in his book he muses: “This range reflects both the functional and symbolic needs we have of the horse. The split between purpose and pleasure between the everyday and the mythical… The horse represents how we are what we are.” His images span from literal to conceptual, but all succeed in celebrating the species with grace and originality.

And, when you first set eyes on Hamish Mackies’ leaping, skittering bronze beasts, set against a backdrop of towering glass, grace and originality are precisely the qualities that spring to mind. A far cry from the formal equestrian statues that adorn London’s various monuments and public squares, Mackies’ work displays a vibrancy and character all of its own. “The sculptures have been designed to draw attention to the region’s rich heritage,” he explains. “But, at the same time, they create a feeling of movement towards the future of unrivalled city living.” It’s a sentiment at the heart of all Berkeley’s projects and collaborations, whether architectural or artistic. From Andy Hazell’s The Seed, a polished stainless steel sycamore seed standing eight metres tall at Stanmore Place to Simon Hitchins’ Glorious Beauty, a playful arrangement of natural forms that offsets its urban environment at 375 Kensington High Street, the delicate balance between history and modernity, between rootedness and transformation, is integral to all endeavours. Over in Battersea, an entire cultural programme is unfolding at the Nine Elms development, including a bespoke glazed façade by Nicky Hirst, a sculptural play space by Matthew Darbyshire, and a new community focused site-specific film and performance project by Lucy Cash.

Whether its a landmark for the future or an injection of vitality into a burgeoning community, Berkeley’s finely tuned knack for ‘placemaking’ has whittled the creation of successful residential spaces down to a fine art. Nowhere is this more palpable than at Goodman’s Fields, where, amongst the six striking towers, capacious verdant courtyards bring to life a development united by an intimate sense of togetherness and a strong outward expression of identity. At its heart is Mackies’ sensational equine centrepiece, calling up London’s rich commercial history, honouring the beauty of these noble animals and symbolising the unbridled potential of an ever-evolving city.