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  • Writer's pictureKathy Troxler

Who Was Whistlejacket?

Whistlejacket National Gallery London

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs

Most horse trainers that I know, don't (or maybe can't) simply shut off being instinctively attuned to all things equine. It's so much a part of who we are, that "horse" is always running in the background of our minds.

Given that Mike and both love art, it should come as no surprise that we find artistic representations of horses fascinating. From ancient times to modern, wherever you see humans trying to make the grandest statement possible, there's an image of a horse. We find ourselves giving serious thought as to whether or not the spots shown on the Chauvet Cave paintings( in Pech Merle France) are dapples or spots? Did DaVinci actually ride much, or did he spend most of his time observing horses?

Chauvet Cave DaVinci Horse collage

Those questions can be postings for another day. The point I'm going for is that when horsemen look at images of horses, whether it's a cave painting, an ancient statue, an oil painting or a photograph, we look at it a little bit differently than "non horse people".

Whistlejacket National Gallery London

When I look at "equestrian art", the very first thing that strikes me is the impression of whether or not the artist was also a horseman? You know what I mean! If you live with horses on a daily basis, you can immediately pick out the artists that have really picked up a horses hoof; those who have really spent time around horses and even those that really rode and sometimes you can even discern those that were (as they say in the west) a "good hand" with a horse. A person has to be around horses a lot to be able to really pick up on their personalities.

So when I look at this famous portrait of Whistlejacket (by George Stubbs), I don't just notice that chestnut color or the fact that he's quite attractive. I find myself thinking that with that neck set, he would set up in the bridle really easily! And his Arabian ancestry is definitely showing! AND Stubbs really knew his horse anatomy. Without looking too hard, I just noticed that the hooves are correct. As it happens, Stubbs spent 18 months dissecting horses and wrote a book on horse anatomy. So yes, he knew exactly how a horse is put together. But there's more here than conformation!

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs

When you look at this portait, Whistlejacket is much more than a sum of his parts. You can see a definite personality and I suspect that he would take some skills to handle properly.

Whistlejacket (The Painting) 1762 By George Stubbs

Whistlejacket “the portrait” seems to have as much of a personality as the horse it originally depicted. Painted in 1762, it was commissioned by his owner, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham in 1761. Until 1996, the painting had its own room at Wentworth Woodhouse, his ancestral home. Not a small intimate room, but a massive space that could easily intimidate a lesser subject. But not only did Whistlejacket prove himself more than up to the task of being commander of all he viewed, he managed to do it while fronted with a brilliant magenta carpet. A true measure of his masculinity! The significance of this painting is such that while the original now hangs in the National Gallery in London, a copy can still be found in the original Whistlejacket room.

Whistlejacket Wentworth Woodhouse

The painting is over 10 feet in height, so almost life sized. Because it is of such epic scale, some speculate that it was originally supposed to have included a rider— King George III. Others disagree, and I'm in that camp. While the notion of sucking up to ones monarch is easy to imagine, I don't know of any stallion owner that would go so far as to put the image of someone else on their stallion! There is every reason to believe that Rockingham was just as “horse obsessed” as any modern day horse owner. In 1766 a prominent visitor of the day supposedly remarked “This lord loves nothing but horses, and the enclosures for them take place of everything.” Some things transcend time and (unlike this prominent unnamed visitor) I find turning every available space into either a turnout space or an arena a completely logical arrangement!

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs

In June 1996, Whistlejacket traveled to the National Gallery in London where local press reported that the painting was on “indefinite loan by a descendant of the aristocrat who commissioned it". In 1997, Christie's Auction House negotiated it's sale to the National Gallery on behalf of the Fitzwilliam Charitable Trust.

Whistlejacket (The Horse) 1749

Whistlejacket was foaled in 1749 and his portrait by George Stubbs has been described as "a paradigm of the flawless beauty of an Arabian thoroughbred". I'm not sure who made that statement, but you can tell that it was contemporary with the painting because the term "Arabian Thoroughbred" hasn't been used for quite sometime. He was bred by Sir William Middleton in Northumberland and was a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian. Through his dam, he was also descended from the Byerly Turk, and various other Arabians and Turks. This “solo” portrait shown below was the second time that Stubbs painted Whistlejacket, when in 1762 he was featured with two other stallions and their groom Simon Cobb. There are some references to Whistlejacket being difficult to manage, however if Stubb's portrayal of the groom and the horse is accurate, it would seem that Whistlejacket, like most horses, just needed the right handler.

And finally, why "Whistlejacket" for a name? The only mention I can find to explain it states that there was a popular local "cocktail" at the time composed of molasses and gin! The name of this concoction was ‘whistle-jacket’, but supposedly, when made with brandy instead of gin, the color of the drink would have resembled the color of his coat.

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs

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