Skating is theme of exhibition at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art
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Skating is theme of exhibition at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art
Skaters on Duddingston Loch by Moonlight, Charles Lees, 1857 © Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation.

NEWMARKET.- The sport of kings is renowned for the grace, poise and speed of its principal athletes, the horses themselves. However a new exhibition seeks to explore similar themes and draw unusual parallels with the sport and pastime of ice skating.

On view at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art in Newmarket, Skating presents a fascinating collection of 30 works from the past 400 years, ranging from 17th-century Flemish painting and Victorian panoramic scenes to 20th-century photographs (including those taken by the iconic Bassano studio), vintage skates and Pathé films.

In 1605 James I chanced upon the village of Newmarket whilst out hunting and recognised the open, flat Suffolk plains as an ideal location upon which to race his string of horses. Subsequently, the town came to be regarded as the epicentre of the British horse racing industry - but the nearby rivers, fens and waterways also provided an alternative transportation network and source of sporting endeavour in the teeth of winter.

Skating’s selection of Flemish Old Masters reveals glimpses into how people living in Flanders during the 17th-century used frozen waterways as a means of going about their business, and having some fun at the same time. Cornelis Beelt’s Skaters on a Frozen River (c. 1660, Colchester and Ipswich Museums) shows two gentlemen chatting as they casually move towards the viewer, whilst a horse patiently waits to pull a sled across the ice.

Anthonie Verstraelen’s 1640 sketch, simply titled Ice Scene and on loan from a private collection, shows a group of wealthy, or noble people, gathering on the shore of a river to enjoy some leisurely skating. It is a faintly comical scene, as the gentleman of a couple in the centre of the picture appears to be about to lose his balance, as his wife looks on with a look of embarrassment and horror upon her quickly drawn visage.

Echoing the Flemish scenes, the exhibition includes a survey of Victorian panoramic paintings which also feature low horizons and scenes of secular activity. There are two paintings by Charles Lees, who studied under Henry Raeburn (the latter’s most iconic work being The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, also known as The Skating Minister – sadly not featured in the exhibition). Reflecting his famous tutor’s influence, the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art has selected Lees’s Skaters on Duddingston Loch by Moonlight (1857, Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation) along with Skating on Linlithgow Loch (1858, private collection) to show the similarities between the Victorians and their earlier European counterparts at play.

Charles Cundall’s 1933 watercolour, Skaters on the Mill Pond at Beaulieu (private collection), shows how this painting tradition continued into the 20th-century, but it is the series of photographs by Bassano and a collection of later Victorian lantern slides that demonstrate how skating wasn’t just a social pastime, but was also both a sporting and artistic endeavour in its own right.

The prints from lantern slides (from the Cambridgeshire Archives) also give us glimpses into 19th-century skating in the East Anglian fens. In a landscape not wholly dissimilar to parts of Holland, Belgium and northern France, here we see a collection of photographs of people gathered at Littleport or Lingay to watch or compete in a series of contests on the frozen waterways. In fact, some of the stars of the time are commemorated in the slides, with Charles J Tebbutt and Fred Ward frozen in time, but demonstrating poses that would be familiar to today’s generation of speed skaters. Another image shows the wonderfully named ‘Turkey’ Smart and Walter Housden racing on Lingay Fen. Smart was so-called due to his distinctive flapping style as he raced across the ice.

At this time, speed skating and figure skating competitions became a way that people could supplement their wages by winning large cash prizes on offer at regional skating competitions. Wagers were made on the competitors, just as they are on horses today. Indeed, in a world full of ‘accas’, bet in play and the chance to bet on virtually anything and anything, the Victorians held man versus train competitions as a bit of fun and opportunity to possibly win some money.

Skating also shows early Pathé film footage shot in the Fens during this era, further bringing the characters and action to life for the visitor.

The Bassano photographs are not only a series of portraits of leading figure skating personalities from the mid-20th-century but also offer an insight into the transition from seasonal, outdoor skating to indoor facilities that were not subject to the vagaries of winter weather. The portraits also show how performers could now eschew thick, woollen and heavy clothing for figure-hugging modern fabrics that not only allowed the skater to move more freely and elegantly but also revealed more of the body itself. These photographs effectively mirror the emerging political emancipation of women and what was deemed appropriate to wear in social and sporting contexts. More contemporary skating stars are represented in photographs of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean (Trevor Leighton, 1997) and John Curry (Bern Schwartz, 1977), both from the National Portrait Gallery.

To further illustrate just how long men and women have taken to the ice, Skating has a display of skates loaned from the Norris Museum in St Ives, Cambridgeshire. These include a pair of stout leather ankle boots, complete with skates from Norway and a pair of early Dutch skates.

“As part of our raison d’être here at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art, we like to give the public fresh glimpses into our sporting and cultural past,” says Dr Patricia Hardy, the museum’s Packard Head of Collections, Exhibitions and Displays. “In the exhibition, we aim to explore what is meant by ‘sporting art’, specifically sporting art and the portrait, as the two seem, historically, to have been treated very separately. Skating will seek to bring the two genres together to broaden out the scope of the former and add meaning to the latter.”

She adds: “Skating has been timed to coincide with the time of year which we most associate with this fun pastime, winter and Christmas. The images and objects afford visitors a chance to enjoy unusual reflections of bygone eras, rural scenes and people at work and play, whilst also showing us that, despite spanning some 400 hundred years, we are not so different.”

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