Painting of famous racehorse bought by Bowes

  • 12 September 2011

The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle has backed a winner with its latest acquisition, an oil painting of a successful racehorse owned by the museum's founder, John Bowes.

Mr John Bowes’ Daniel O’Rourke with Frank Butler Up, Harry Hall, 1852

Mr John Bowes’ Daniel O’Rourke with Frank Butler Up, Harry Hall, 1852

The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle has bought an oil painting of a successful racehorse owned by the museum's founder, John Bowes, with help from the Art Fund.

The painting

Bowes, still universally recognised as one of the most successful stud owners and racehorse breeders of the 19th century, was a keen race-goer known as the ‘mystery man of the British turf.’ Around 1852, the year his horse Daniel O’Rourke won the Epsom Derby, Bowes commissioned leading equine portraitist Harry Hall to paint the ‘little pony’, as he was affectionately known owing to his lack of stature.

The painting, Mr John Bowes’ Daniel O’Rourke with Frank Butler Up, depicts, as implied, the horse with jockey Butler on board. The work also depicts a distinguished gentleman in top hat and tails, who is holding the horse’s rug. This is probably a Mr Markwell, recorded as leading in Bowes’ winners during the 1850s.

The horse

Daniel O’Rourke was under 15 hands high, yet Bowes’ trainer John Scott, and Butler the jockey, thought highly of him. And although he’d run a disappointing race in the 2000 Guineas, they held fast to their opinion that he stood a good chance of winning the Derby.

The day of the race dawned with incessant rain, which didn’t lift until just before the start of the race - yet despite this and the horse running at odds of 25-1, well down in the betting against 26 contenders - he justified the trust put in him by gamely battling it out to cross the finish line half a length in front of his nearest rival.

The artist

Equine portraiture was in great demand during the 19th Century, not only to adorn the homes of gentlemen who wished to immortalise their winning thoroughbreds, but prints were widely sought after by keen followers of the sport and by publicans who wished to decorate their premises.

Each year Hall produced paintings which were engraved and published to commemorate the winners of the Derby, St Leger, Gold Cup and other classic races. A regular contributor to The Field, The Sporting Magazine and the Illustrated London News, he was in effect a sporting journalist in paint.

The purchase

it was recently bought at auction by The Bowes Museum for £18,000, with the support of the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Art Fund and the Friends of The Bowes Museum.