On Southern Turf

The paneled library houses the Brockmans' collection of American sporting art, an interest that has evolved in the last ten years and has become one of their most significant pursuits. "I was already collecting southern regional art, and I always liked the look of English salons, with horse paintings lining the walls," Hank says. "I started buying British pieces, but there was something missing. They didn't mean as much to me."

Then Greg Ladd, the equestrian art dealer in Lexington, sold the Brockmans a portrait of the American horse Devil Diver by Kentucky-born painter Vaughn Flannery. That introduced the Brockmans to the lesser-known world of American sporting art, in which southern horses, owners, farms, and tracks played a key role. According to racing historian John Hervey, there are records of horse racing as early as the 1670s in Virginia and Maryland,2 and by the time of the Civil War, "the turf had become pre-eminently something in and of the South."3 The couple still admires classic British sporting art-their Blue Prince II by Sir Alfred Munnings is a favorite-but they have decided to readjust their focus.

"With American sporting art you have a broader range of styles versus English," Hank observes. "We identified a few American artists we felt captured the essence of American racing history: Edward Troye and Henry Stull, who painted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Vaughn Flannery and Lee Townsend from the 1930s and 1940s."

It has been said that Troye "did as much for the American horse as Audubon did for American ornithol­ogy,"4 but the Swiss-born artist did not apparently set out to paint only horses. He was educated in London, came to Pennsylvania in about 1830, around the age of twenty-two, and painted other animals as well as portraits and landscapes.5 A commission in 1832 to paint two thoroughbreds owned by John C. Craig of Philadelphia launched his career as a painter of horses. He would go on to paint every major thoroughbred in the United States. He spent most of his career in the South, and his horse paintings are prized also for the other elements they record: the landscape, antebellum houses and stables, racing sites, and people. Troye died in Kentucky in 1874.

Although Stull ini­tially aspired to be an actor, he was associated with horses from childhood and seemingly destined to paint them. Reputedly born over a stable, he fre­quented races as a youth and worked early on as a sporting illustrator. Studying horse anatomy at veterinary school helped him articulate subjects with unparalleled precision, which he often juxtaposed against impressionistic backgrounds.6 Vaughn Flan­nery began his career in advertising illustration, but went on to paint highly realistic depictions of horses and their surroundings. Lee Townsend (1895-1965) was a professional horse trainer turned artist whose paintings brought an intimate perspec­tive of turf life to his canvases.

An intriguing aspect of American equestrian art is the visual witness it bears to African Americans as athletes, often depicting them astride or alongside the horses. "They were integral to the sport. They were the trainers, the grooms, they worked the farms, and-not least of all-they were the jockeys," Mary points out. In fact, black jockeys dominated thoroughbred racing in America up to the early twentieth century. Thirteen of the fifteen jockeys in the inaugural Kentucky Derby of 1875 were black, and black jockeys won fifteen of the first twenty-eight Derbys.7

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

» View All