Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Line of Kings: the Wooden Horses

Last week I was fortunate to a preview the latest 'Line of Kings' exhibition at the Tower of London [see Line of Kings: the Oldest Exhibition in the World ]. Against a clear blue sky the White Tower looked stunning, the perfect setting to set the mood for this historic attraction.

In this exhibition you will see suits of armour, including two worn by King Henry VIII, as well as life-sized horses, carved in the 1690's to display equine armour. For me it is these figures that steal the show. Because of their great age, over 300 years old, these horses are now too fragile to support the weight of armour they were originally intended to carry, but in their own right they are beautiful sculptures.

The poses of the horses are striking and a wonderfully insightful blog post on the significance of their stance can be found on here, on the 'History Needs You' blog. Be it artist or carpenter, it is obvious that whoever crafted these life-sized creatures had a wonderful empathy with the equine species. Prancing and firy, noble and elegant, you can read the respect of sculptor for subject in every vein and sinew. Indeed, the figures are so detailed that each model has horse shoes!

Detail showing the different paint finishes on the wooden horses
(Wooden horse to the left of the photo, armour to the right)
Endoscopy has given a fascinating insight into how these models were crafted. Each horse was made from wooden planking (they are hollow) and assembled with traditional carpentry techniques. If you look hard you can see the joins and wooden pins.

A detail showing the joins and a pin used to assemble the sculptures.
Over the centuries each horse has been repainted multiple times. If you look carefully you can see a small area on some of the horses (on their flank, about halfway down) made up of postage-stamp sized areas of differing colours. This is were conservationists have painstakingly removed layer upon layer of paint to reveal the previous liveries.

The horse, commissioned in 1685, used to display the model
of King Henry VIII in armour.
Unmarked and standing unassumingly amongst the rest are two horses of special significance. One is a black horse with rolling eyes and flared nostrils - this figure was the first commissioned to carry a model of King Henry VIII in his armour. The second is a prancing dun coloured horse that is a shade shorter than the others. It is suspected that this may have been carved by a man with the striking name of Grinling Gibbons.

Was this horse carved by Grinling Gibbons?
Grinling was a sculptor and woodworker whose catalogue includes carvings at St Paul's Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Blenheim Palace. Records exist showing the Grinling was paid forty pounds for a carving of Charles I and a horse. Later sculptors were paid half this amount.

This horse is the cuckoo in the nest - Why?
Because it was made just a couple of years ago in order to carry the weight of
Henry VIII's armour.
Some of the other wooden wonders on show at the Line of Kings include wooden carvings (from the late 17th century) in the form of the likenesses of monarchs, including Henry VIII and Charles I.

Carved in wood - the likeness of King Henry VIII-
part of an exhibition created 300 years ago

I would like to thank the lovely people at the Historic Royal Palaces, and John Shevlin in particular, for inviting an ordinary blogger to a preview of this wonderful exhibition. For those wishing to visit the Line of Kings, entry is free, included as part of the admission fee to the Tower of London.


  1. This was an enjoyable post. The sculptures have held up beautifully. What artists the carvers were. (Henry VIII didn't look very appealing, did he.)

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post, Elizabeth. I would definitely call the carpenters 'artists' - and gifted ones at that. And yes, Henry VIII looks decidedly grumpy but rather confirms to my mental image of him.
    Thank you for leaving a comment,
    Grace x

  3. Thank you for this wonderful site. I just found it because I took some picture of the horses and am sending them to a friend who worked on restoring a carousel. I did a google search to find out more about the horses and found you and am sending a link along to my friend. One of my photos is almost the same as one of yours. It's so nice to see that someone else was so struck by the artistry, and the history, of these horses.

    1. That's wonderful, Paula, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. Don't tell anyone, but the statue I liked the least was the modern one - the grey, fibreglass horse - it had none of the life about it that the originals have.
      Thanks for commenting,
      G x


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