Sunday 9th of June 2024
The Gaitpost

London’s Equine Legacy

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Amongst the somber mounted horses that prop up kings and military leaders in perpetuity in the city of London, where once so many horses trod, leaving a steaming trail of muck and dung, a new breed of equine sculpture is emerging. The naked horse sculpture is a modern phenomenon – one that picks up the thread of the wild horses etched on the walls of caves before they were domesticated. The history of equestrian sculpture is as old as our relationship with the horse, first domesticated 5,000 years ago. One of the earliest surviving examples is Rampin the Rider (550BC) unearthed at the Athenian acropolis, and when Baron Carlo Marochetti immortalized Richard the Lionheart in 1956, he crowned a long tradition of military commanders and leaders glorified in bronze and stone.*


But at the start of the 20th century our relationship to the horse changed profoundly: the Great War revealed the horrific and brutal reality of motorized horse-power. As the machine replaced the horse the genre of equestrian statue fell out of fashion, as it had during the Middle Ages when stone masons and sculptors were over subscribed with saints and cathedrals. The classical form was revived with spectacular success, during the Italian Renaissance in Donatello’s bronze Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, commissioned by the Medici family. In 1633, the Italian trained French sculptor Hubert le Sueur cast a bronze equestrian statue of Charles I for Lord Weston’s house in Roehampton. In 1664, parliament ordered its destruction, but the man charged with destroying it hid it instead. It resurfaced during the Restoration and was erected in 1675 at the original site of Charing Cross, Trafalgar Square.


Throughout the major cities of Europe, whenever a military leader was to be glorified, he was cast in bronze and seated on a horse – notoriously difficult to render in stone and bronze owing to the challenges of volume, balance and weight support. Etienne-Maurice Falconet immortalized the founder of St Petersburg with The Bronze Horseman of Peter the Great on his steed above a rocky perch in 1778; and Franz Anton von Zauner cast Joseph the Second astride his horse in Josefplatz, Vienna in 1808. London was no exception, with equestrian statues like Charles I and George the IV in Trafalgar Square, and Richard the Lionheart in Westminster now time loved landmarks.**


Today as we look back to at the tragic loss of a generation 100 years ago, the ghosts of London’s horses can be heard galloping through the streets.

British sculptors and their patrons have been resurrecting this mythical beast, not only to mark how our relationship to the animal has changed profoundly, but also to remember how they shaped the streets and city we know today. Giant and majestic horses can be seen looming around corners and chasing cars, as if fashioned out of our collective memory.

The horse was the engine of human development, and the city of London was built with horse-power. Until a generation ago, horses were an unavoidable part of everyday life. Indeed, there were so many horses in Victorian London that it was feared the city would become inhabitable by the turn of the 20th century “buried under a rising tide of dung.” 

hamish mackie horses

By the 1900s it was estimated that 300,000 horses and 11,000 horse drawn cabs were required to keep London moving.


Over the last sixty years they have all but vanished from the London streets. Our relationship to the horse has changed irrevocably, replaced by the car, and yet their spirit and our profound connection to the animal remain very much alive. As if we expect to see them in the streets of London, sculpture after sculpture is being commissioned, giving form and substance to the ghostly echo of their hooves. A riderless horse is strictly an “equine statue,” as distinct to the once popular “equestrian statue” derived from the latin “eques” for “knight.”


On Marble Arch a giant horse’s head balances like a ballet dancers pointed toe, and further down Park Lane a tribute to the Animals in War is a poignant reminder for every motorist passing by. Outside the British Council, just around the corner from Charles I in Trafalgar Square is Marc Wallinger’s marble and resin life size representation of a thoroughbred. The White Horse was created with a white light scanner to faithfully reproduce the horse. It is like a ghost – still and lifeless – with only the concept defining a link to its creator. It blankly references his winning entry for The Ebbsfleet Landmark Project – 25 times life-size – that pays homage to the horse’s emblematic status in our national history and taps into the 21st century’s trend for gigantism (the world’s largest equine sculpture when completed will be the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dekota a colossal 641ft high).


Frankel the Great But rather than evoke the ancient mythical ‘Horsa’ etched in perpetuity into the chalk white of the Whiltshire downs – Wallinger’s horse stands in line with the modern thoroughbred. First created in the 18th century by crossing an Arabian Stallion with a native mare, 90% of today’s thoroughbreds can be traced to the original Darley Stallion. Chris Levine’s 3D holographic portrait of Frankel, a direct descendant, shows the race horse, bridle-less, reaching over the finishing line.


In 2015 two major equine statue are to be revealed in the city of London. The first, a riderless skeleton of a horse will replace Katharina Fritch’s ultramarine Blue Cock on the Fourth Plinth. It is a bleak and lifeless reference to the equestrian statue of William IV originally meant to occupy the plinth. Created by the artist Hans Haacke best known for his scathing institutional critique, his Gift Horse is decorated with a ribbon displaying a live ticker of the London Stock Exchange. It is a morbid indictment of the power the financial industry holds over the city today.


But somewhere in a brighter place where once the horses who served the people of London once ran free is another, more lasting commission, one that will hopefully stand the test of time and the shifting sands of power. The Berkley Group has commissioned British Wildlife Sculptor Hamish Mackie to create six life and a quarter bronze horses galloping through the streets of Whitechapel.

They are not scanned replicas, or digitally scaled up versions of study clay models, they are full of the dynamism and vitality that Mackie instinctively brought forth with his finger tips in creating these six running horses. They are a tribute to our relationship to this majestic animal, his sweeping gestures still visible in the bronze – stroking their flanks in awe and admiration. They are beautiful, they are built to last, and you can reach out and touch them.


By freelance writer, Nico Kos Earle.

Find Nico on instagram or Facebook. To contact Nico please email:

For more information about how to commission your own horses in art please visit Vankosart:

or contact Sam Van Coillie, Director.  Tel: +44 (0)7501 958135:  Email:


* Urban legend states that if the horse is rearing with both front legs in the air, the rider died in battle; one front leg up means the rider was wounded in battle or died of battle wounds; and if all four hooves are on the ground, the rider died outside battle. For example Richard the Lionheart is mounted passant, outside the Palace of Westminster by Carlo Marochetti; the former died 11 days after he was wounded in battle.


** A potent statement of power and success and the equestrian sculpture remained a firm favorite of the ruling elite until Degas came along with his exquisite impressions of horses running free. This was followed by the Modern Masters who, profoundly shocked the tragic ravages and loss of life during the Great War, dismounted the riders altogether. The popularity of the equestrian monument declined sharply as monarchies fell and the military use of horses virtually disappeared.



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