Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Drawing the story...

I can't remember how young I was when I first became aware of horses. My parents were completely non horsey, although my dad had ridden once as young lad, my lovely mum, although she was bought up in rural Wales, had never had anything to do with them and to this day remains nervous of them. I, on the other hand to their slight bewilderment, became obsessed with them at the age of 6. I had no chance of having a pony back then and it was long before we had computers and instant images, so, as a voracious reader, I took to devouring any horse or pony book I could get my hands on. I was entranced with the fictional lives of the characters in all the Pullein-Thompson sisters' books, who were probably the most prolific and famous horsey authors of the day when I was very young. Although even then, their world of hunting, baggy jodphurs, endless picnics and jolly japes was fast being consigned to history, I still wanted to be one of these children, living their idyllic, adventurous lives but most of all I wanted their ponies. I also knew off by heart back then all the instructions in my 'Manual of Horsemanship', although I had yet to set a  foot in a stirrup.

Sisters Josephine, Christine and Diana Pullein- Thompson, their books enriched my childhood.
Then I moved onto the Jinny at Finmory stories by Patricia Leitch - anyone of the same vintage as me will remember these stirring stories about a red-headed girl who lived in a huge old house in the north of Scotland and into whose life, through a circus lorry crashing (you'll have to read the book), came an arab called Shantih. I had not long moved to Scotland myself and was about the same age as the fictional Jinny when I first read these stories and they enthralled me. Her parents were seeking a new life in the north like mine were but they sounded way cooler because they let a wild, rough lad called Ken come and stay and he sounded pretty exciting too!

As much as I enjoyed reading the stories I also loved looking at the illustrations in all these books. There were some fabulous illustrators at work back then. Back then in the days before desktop publishing, photographs were still very expensive to use and print and illustrators were very important. Many of the books I was given dated back to just after World War II and although some might have a grainy photograph on the frontispiece, most were illustrated with glorious drawings and prints.
I grew to love the wonderful work of the likes of Stanley Lloyd who illustrated books like Primrose Cummings' 'The Chestnut Filly', 'Silver Snaffles' and Betty Cavanna's 'Spurs for Suzanna' and Harold Eldridge whose wonderful drawings illustrated Walter Farley's 'Black Stallion' books.

A Stanley Lloyd illustration from my copy of 'The Chestnut Filly' by Primrose Cumming
At about the age of 8, I had been given a fantastic little book first published in 1941, which I still have to this day, by the superb artist John Skeaping RA called 'How to Draw Horses'. Skeaping was a sculptor and artist who was married to fellow sculptor Barbara Hepworth. I loved his drawings in this book, I adored the way he could convey in a few simple lines, a horse's power, grace and more importantly bring alive its movement. I started practising drawing horses and soon covered every available surface with my early attempts and when I was lucky enough to get my own pony, (see earlier blog), I used to lie in the grass and sketch him in his field.

A Skeaping illustration from his book - 'How to draw horses'

One of my earliest masterpieces, in the style of a Skeaping!
As I got older and started scornfully discarding those book I considered beneath me as a sophisticated  teenager, I did keep some of my most treasured horsey books and to this day they are the pretty much the only childhood books I have. I also started actively collecting antique books that contained beautiful or humorous equine illustrations. I have always been a very visual person and indeed now work as a designer on a magazine dealing with images and photographs every day. Back then though, as a schoolgirl I enjoyed art and although I am not particularly talented and I never cracked drawing the human figure (that still bugs me today), I really enjoyed trying to capture the structure and liquid movement of horses.

Getting better - I was a bit older when I did this one.

Today I still doodle horses on paper - if I drift off in a meeting or when I have lost interest in a phone conversation. I rarely finish a drawing off properly though as I like trying to capture their spirit - much like Skeaping, but sadly with only a minute modicum of his giant artistic talent. I will occasionally find the time to do a finished piece and for these I prefer working in mono - pen and ink or pencil in particular and I have drawn a couple of friends' horses as a present for them but I much prefer free-style doodling.

I will occasionally try a more detailed drawing
But I still prefer trying to capture movement in a few hasty strokes.

A real treat for me remains, in rare quiet moment when there is no one on the yard, to take a sketch pad into the stables and make some quick drawings of the horses. Drawing the curve of a neck or the turn of a head can give you a real feel of a horse you know well, in a completely different form than a photograph can. If I come across an old sketch I can usually tell what horse I was drawing even if it is just a few lines and the horse itself is long gone. When you try to draw a horse you feel it's weight and its peculiar physical structure but you try and capture a sense of it as a living being - and trying to translate that, however amateurishly, onto paper fascinates me.

Illustration from a lovely 1925 book on hunting 'Hullo! is that how you ride?' I wouldn't like to be the poor horse though.


  1. This is excellent, brought back so much memories. Thank you.x

  2. Hullo from Norway :-) I found my way to your blog after flicking through H&R yesterday. Being one-horsed working/studying mother of two, and having a huge soft spot for Scotland, I had to have a look-see at your blog. You had me hooked at the Pullein-Thompson girls - I'll certainly be checking in again.

  3. Hi enhvithest - how fantastic to have someone from as far away as Norway enjoying the blog. Is that your lovely white horse that I got to on a blog when I clicked your name? Couldn't read it as your English is much better than my Norwegian!

    Flicka - thanks for the kind words it's always good to hear that readers are enjoying these

  4. Wonderful! Thank you.

  5. Thanks for the compliment, the one to the far right is my current, childproof arab, who can also be seen here: (Where I am shamelessly bragging about how amazed I am that there was indeed a childproof horse inside the scatterbrained prancer he used to be.) I have him at a semi-DIY barn now, but have had horses at home in the past so I'm not entirely unfamiliar with adventures in fencing and the juggling of feeding hours and office hours.

    Happy holidays - and happy riding!