John Skeaping


exhibited 1934

Not on display

John Skeaping 1901–1980
Mahogany and pynkado
Object: 1816 × 3886 × 673 mm
Presented by the Zoological Society of London 1945

Display caption

Skeaping was a sculptor of the human figure and of animals, particularly horses and antelopes. He constantly drew from animals, and became very familiar with their anatomy and their distinctive characteristics. In 1933, the year that Skeaping carved this horse, he also illustrated the 'Whipsnade Zoo Animal Book'. In 1936 he published a book entitled 'Animal Drawing' which was followed in 1941 by 'How to Draw Horses'. 'Horse' was purchased for Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire in 1937 by a group of subscribers and it remained on view there until 1945 when it was presented to the Tate Gallery.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Mahogany and pinkado, 1816 x 3886 x 673 mm (71 1/2 x 153 x 26 ½ in)
Presented by the Zoological Society of London 1945

Purchased from the artist for the Zoological Society of London by a group of subscribers 1937

New Sculpture by John Skeaping, Arthur Tooth & Sons, London, Jan.-Feb. 1934 (1, as The Horse)
Whipsnade Park, Bedfordshire, 1937-45 (as Stallion)
Open Air Exhibition of Sculpture, London County Council in association with the Arts Council, Battersea Park, London, May-Sept. 1948 (37)
Rhodes Centenary Exhibition, UK Pavilion, Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), July 1953 (as Stallion)
Extended loan, Cheltenham Art Gallery, Feb. 1956-8
Extended loan, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, 1962- June 1963
Ascot, Windsor Festival Society, Windsor Castle, Sept.-Oct. 1978 (no catalogue traced)

F.G. Prince-White, ‘Horse Carved from 2 1/2 Ton Mahogany’, Daily Mail, 12 Jan. 1934, p.18, repr.
J.B., ‘The Horse: Mr Skeaping’s Great Carving’, Manchester Guardian, 18 Jan. 1934, p.8
‘Mr Skeaping’s Horse’, Morning Post, 18 Jan. 1934, p.6
‘Great Sculpture: Animal Carving’, North Eastern Gazette (Middlesborough), 18 Jan. 1934, p.4
‘Animal Sculpture: A Tour de Force of Carving’, Liverpool Post, 19 Jan. 1934, p.8
‘Art in London: The Artist as Showman: Skeaping’s Methods’, Scotsman, 19 Jan. 1934, p.11
‘Art Exhibitions: Mr John Skeaping’, Times, 19 Jan. 1934, p.12
‘Animal Sculpture’, Observer, 21 Jan. 1934, p.12
‘John Skeaping’, Sunday Times, 21 Jan. 1934, p.7
G[ui] St B[ernard], ‘Sculptor’s 12ft Horse: Bond Street Monster’, Daily News Chronicle, 22 Jan. 1934, p.9
‘A Horse in Wood: Mr Skeaping’s Delicate Art’, Daily Mail, 23 Jan. 1934, p.17
‘Animals in Wood and Stone: An Original Sculptor’, Daily Telegraph, 23 Jan. 1934, p.13
‘Art: The Horse’, Truth, 24 Jan. 1934, p.130
Anthony Blunt, ‘Art: Artists and Materials’, Spectator, 2 Feb. 1934, p.160, repr.
G[wen] Raverat. ‘Sculpture’, Time and Tide, 3 Feb. 1934, p.152
‘New Sculpture by John Skeaping at Messrs. Tooth’s Gallery’, Apollo, vol.19, no.110, Feb. 1934, p.114
Reports of the Council and Auditors of the Zoological Society of London for the Year 1937, 1938, p.15
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.645
Julian Huxley, Memoirs, London 1970, p.239
John Skeaping, Drawn from Life: An Autobiography, London 1977, pp.101,105-6
Nicholas Hely-Hutchinson, ‘The Reluctant Modernist: John R. Skeaping, R.A. 1901-1980’, unpublished MA Dissertation, University of St Andrews, 1982, p.27, pl.30
Lucy Pendar, Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, My Africa, Dunstable 1991, p.58, repr. p.57
Sandra Deighton, ‘John Skeaping: The Horse’, in Jackie Heuman ed., Material Matters: Conservation of Modern Sculpture, London 1999, pp.52-61

Also reproduced:
Evening Standard, 12 Jan. 1934, p.12
Daily Mirror, 13 Jan. 1934, p.19
Liverpool Post, 13 Jan. 1934, p.14
Daily Herald, 16 Jan. 1934, p.16
Daily Mirror, 16 Jan. 1934, p.5
Daily Telegraph, 16 Jan. 1934, p.7
Bulletin & Scots Pictorial, 16 Jan. 1934, p.10
Manchester Guardian, 16 Jan. 1934, p.7
Pearson’s Weekly, 10 Feb. 1934, p.7
John Skeaping 1901-80: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Arthur Ackermann and Son, London 1991, p.9

The overwhelming impression of The Horse is its size. This stimulated the rash of publicity which preceded its arrival at Arthur Tooth & Sons in January 1934 and which accompanied John Skeaping’s solo exhibition (opening on 18 January) there. Most of the newspapers were able to tell their readers that the body had been carved out of a piece of mahogany weighing two and a half tons, that it was twelve feet long and eighteen hands high; many compared it to the Trojan Horse. The press response appears to have been part of a concerted publicity campaign, which some identified as showmanship on the part of the artist. Nevertheless, the interviews, photographs and reviews, do provide a picture of the work’s conception and reception.

The sculptor informed F.G. Prince-White: ‘I have been working on the figure spasmodically for about 18 months’.[1] This would place its inception in the middle of 1932. As he later recalled, the roughing-out of the mahogany body ‘was a colossal undertaking’ in which he was helped by the sculptor Elizabeth Spurr, his student and companion.[2] The legs were prepared in pinkado (a Burmese ironwood related to mahogany) and tenonned into the body. The sculptor’s recollection continued: ‘In order to avoid inevitable splitting, I cut the trunk in half lengthwise, and hollowed it out with an adze ... The finished work took three months in all’.[3] This fits approximately with the statement that ‘it took about four months to carve and piece together’.[4] These must be the final months of 1933, even though both the sculptor and his assistant were photographed in the week prior to the exhibition ostensibly putting finishing touches to the mane from a riding position. Like the photographs of the unloading of the sculpture from its trailer in Bond Street, this was a flamboyant touch.

Under the heading ‘Bond Street Monster’, the Daily News Chronicle reported that ‘the animal is based on the artist’s own mare, an English thoroughbred’.[5] Another report added that the mare was ‘called Jennifer, formerly owned by the sculptor, and the pose shows the animal “passaging” before a race - that is, moving sideways, and ready to jump off. The idea was to get the most vitality with the least action, so the giant wood horse has all four feet on the ground’.[6] Once in the gallery, its dominance was as much a source of comment as the fact that it was ‘standing on the ground without any pedestal’.[7] Although the skill of the undertaking was universally admired, the critic of Apollo (Feb. 1934) suggested that ‘not quite unjustified’ objections could be raised about the forelegs;[8] another commentator had already called them ‘rather stiff’, although the whole was admired as a ‘romantic horse out of some forgotten saga’.[9]

The Horse was subsequently displayed outside for at least eight years, initiating a state of decay which restricted further public appearances. Alternate shrinkage and swelling, together with water penetration and fungal decay were cited in 1975 in counselling against its return outdoors, while even for exhibition the disintegration of the varnish (exacerbated by graffiti and plaster repairs) and the opening of the joint along the back necessitated comprehensive treatment.[10] Finally in 1991-2, it underwent thoroughgoing restoration, a technical account of which has been published by Sandra Deighton.[11] The process of taking apart the pieces confirmed the sculptor’s recollections. When opened, the body cavity was revealed to have been worked with an adze and then finished with a wide gouge. It had been halved in such a way as to include the head with the left side, with the joint passing along the spine and half way along the neck. This avoided the areas of detailed carving. To compensate for the resulting asymmetry, the neck cranes to the right, carrying the head into line with the rest of the body. Five bolts were used to secure the two sides, their ends concealed by ten square and diamond shaped inserts of wood visible in the flanks. Where the joint along the back remained open - or re-opened later - the gap was filled with a glue, sawdust and newspaper combination keyed to the sides with tacks (which prevented the filler falling into the cavity). Both the bolts and the tacks rusted; the former have been replaced with stainless steel bolts while the joint was filled with a surface filler.[12]

The most complex area of the construction was the support of the massive body by the legs. Skeaping used pinkado believing it was harder than mahogany.[13] Tenon blocks left at the top of the legs were fitted into mortise sockets in the body 115 mm to 130 mm (4 1/2 to 5 in) deep; they were secured with a total of ten dowels drilled through at right angles. In the process of deconstruction it was found that the dowels did not pass through the tenons. In order to achieve greater strength, their replacements were extended to the other side of the mortise; their visible ends were capped with sections of the original dowels. Despite Skeaping’s assertion that ‘This makes a very strong joint when glued’,[14] the stance of the horse exerted extreme pressures on the joints through the backward angling of the legs. This was made more precarious by the use of two pieces for each of the hind legs, which, at some time after completion, were reinforced with metal brackets. The brackets rusted and, with the opening of the joints, a ‘sitting position’ resulted, which was already remarked upon in 1975. Skeaping himself seems to have packed the joints with paper and slim wooden fillets, and subsequent repairs added plaster. All these materials were removed when the joints were re-set using resin and fillets made from seasoned mahogany.[15] An acute area of rot around the joint of the neck and right fore leg had to be cut away and replaced with seasoned mahogany. Similar problems were presented by the tail - although not structurally crucial - which had also been reinforced with a metal bracket before coming away altogether.

The surface had suffered considerably. Cracks had opened in the right flank (especially as the wood thinned towards the neck), where graffiti and minor losses (to the right ear and right testicle) also occurred. These were accompanied by severe effects of weathering: the loss of varnish and consequent bleaching of the wood. In the process of consolidation, the weathered areas were stained and the whole surface waxed to achieve a dark sheen comparable to that in early photographs.

The decay of The Horse was largely caused by its display at Whipsnade Park from 1937, although this seems to have been consistent with the sculptor’s existing arrangements. In an undated letter, he thanked J.B. Manson for allowing the ‘horse to be stalled at the Tate’, adding ‘I certainly did not know what to do with it. One of the joints has opened in the damp, through keeping the work out of doors. This I must put right’.[16] This restoration must be placed before Manson’s retirement as Director in July 1938 and was probably in preparation for acquisition for the Zoological Society. A site was found at Whipsnade by late 1936 but the sculpture became part of the struggle between the Council and the Secretary of the Society, Julian Huxley, and it was approved ‘on the condition that no expense should be incurred by the Society in the purchase of the work’.[17] Huxley secured support for purchase by private subscription (aided by Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells) and The Horse was erected - without ceremony - on Monday 19 April 1937.[18] An explanation emerged in the annual report:

A group of admirers of Mr Skeaping’s work, hearing that there was a possibility that his carving of a stallion (one of the largest extant carvings in wood) was in danger of being destroyed so that the head might be sold separately, subscribed to purchase it for presentation to Whipsnade. It has been erected in the centre of the turning circle on the edge of the Downs, where it makes a striking feature.[19]

The potential breaking up of the sculpture indicates Skeaping’s difficulties in selling or storing such a large work. For his part, Huxley encountered greater intransigence - and rebuke - in the following year when the Council rejected Eric Gill’s female nude torso Mankind, 1927-8;[20] it, too, came to the Tate Gallery (N05388). The memoirs of both suggest that the Council’s continuing disapproval led to The Horse being found after Huxley’s enforced retirement ‘lying on a rubbish heap in a lamentable condition’.[21] However, the official minutes indicate that, on the recommendation for removal in early 1945, attempts were made to seek Skeaping’s advice,[22] and, in the absence of a reply, the Council reminded itself that it had ‘reserved complete freedom of action as regards what might be done in the future, e.g. moving it to another site or taking it down altogether’, conditions to which Skeaping had agreed.[23] Records at the Tate indicate that The Horse was offered as a gift by the Zoological Society shortly after.[24] Skeaping’s approval was sought and he arranged for its restoration by the wood carver Alan Coleman.[25] This was considered successful enough for it to be exhibited outside in very different climates in 1948 and 1953.

The location of The Horse outside, however unsuitable for its material, reflected its stature as a life-size sculpture. This was bound up with several issues current in 1934. One of these was a resurgent naturalism in Skeaping’s work, which has encouraged the ambiguous but habitual reference to the height of The Horse as eighteen hands. In choosing the emphatically generalised title, and in introducing the decorative braiding of the mane and tail, Skeaping maintained a stylised universality. This touched upon the question of technique, as the choice of hardwood for a free-standing horse showed his continuing concern with direct carving. Like the absence of a pedestal at Tooth’s (it was fixed to a plinth at Whipsnade with bolts through the hooves), the carving of a horse must be seen in the context of the tradition of bronze equestrian statuary from classical and Renaissance periods down to those erected to the commanders of World War I. It may also be contrasted with the work of the established animalier Herbert Haseltine, whose Suffolk Punch Stallion (Tate NO4560) was bought by the Tate in 1932; it represented the deficiencies of the modeller as perceived by carvers, being transferred into burgundy stone by a craftsman.

These issues were brought together with the question of monumental art by the engraver Gwen Raverat, whose review of the 1934 exhibition remained measured:

Mr Skeaping has a good sense of sculptural form; yet in the present exhibition he seems to me more successful as a craftsman than as an artist. ... And yet this horse, a splendid beast, well carved, the form well seen, the rhythm good, somehow just fails to become an Essential Horse, a Horse-God, an Idol. And I believe this is simply because it is not a definite piece of work done for a definite place. The moral is, of course, that Mr Skeaping should be given a job.[26]

This suggestion of a public commission chimes with the contemporary debate about monumental sculpture in relation to architecture. Controversy had dogged Epstein’s works on the Underground Railway building at St James’ Park in 1929, but Geoffrey Jellicoe could claim, alongside illustrations of the work of Moore, Hepworth, Skeaping and others, that ‘all over Europe architecture is calling directly or indirectly to sculpture’.[27] A month after his exhibition, Skeaping tackled this issue in ‘The Relation of Sculpture to Architecture’ and in a lecture given at Cambridge.[28] His article was predictably dismissive of designs by modellers executed by ‘journeyman carvers’. Instead - asserting the aptitudes of contemporary direct carvers - he stated: ‘In all the best examples where sculpture is seen in relation to architecture - Egypt, Mexico and Europe of the Romanesque - one gets the feeling that the sculptor has carved his sculpture out of the building, or rather ... has carved the building’.[29] These views confirm Skeaping’s interest, which had its roots in his academic training and the decorative schemes encouraged at the British School at Rome. They may suggest - as Raverat did - that The Horse demonstrated his suitability for such large scale work.

The 1934 exhibition served to establish Skeaping’s sculptural identity as distinct from that of Hepworth, from whom he separated in 1931. The Horse was part of his re-immersion in carving, but the drama that it brought to his exhibition ensured acclaim in place of the rigours of a modernism of which he was suspicious. This is supported by his aside to F.G. Prince-White that he had concealed inside The Horse ‘a little bundle of papers containing my private and personal views and opinions about my contemporaries and their work’.[30] When opened in 1991, a single sheet of writing paper was recovered.[31] It had been sealed around the sides and folded twice, and suffered damage from damp and insect attack along these edges. Its remains may read:

[...] is practically my only opportunit[y] [...] | [?sa]ying exactly what I think abou[t] | [?everyo]ne.

In truth I am only intereste[d] [...] | myself and my own pleasure | [I] think that almost everyone I kno[w] | in the artistic world are just one mass

of stupidit[y]

[I] think Henry Moore is a g[...] | sculptor in a very limited way.

[Bar]bara Hepworth has hardly got a[n] | [?ori]ginal idea in her head

There are no other sculptors ex[cept] | J. Epstein is one of the best art[ists]

[...] we have

Cedric Morris is one of the [...] | painters

[...] and [...] [?offend] [?nice] people I am [...]

Although the fragmentary nature makes some passages tantalising, the incoherence suggests the strain in the sculptor’s life. He and Hepworth had separated but remained on good terms throughout the period in which the document was written; she told Nicholson in mid-1932 that ‘Jack is so much happier & stabilized ... he feels that whatever happens now he is strong enough to stand up to it & get on with his work’.[32] Despite this - and his earlier eminence - he resigned from the 7 & 5 Society in 1932 and was not included in Unit One when it was announced in mid 1933. This confirmed a parting of ways: the participation of Moore and Hepworth in the new group - shown together in a larger exhibition at the Anglo-German Club in December 1933 - which came to fruition in the Unit One exhibition and publication (in April 1934) aligned them with the aspirations towards abstraction of Nicholson and Herbert Read. A rosewood Female Figure, 1934 (private collection)[33] shows that Skeaping also made moves towards abstraction, but the concealed document implied his misgivings.

Following the success of his exhibition, Skeaping re-established stability in his private life by marrying Morwenna Ward on 7 April 1934. Unit One appeared in the same month with statements by the artists. There Hepworth explained the relation of her abstraction to reality in telling terms: ‘I do not want to make a stone horse that is trying to and cannot smell the air. How lovely is the horse’s sensitive nose, the dog’s moving ears and deep eyes; but to me these are not stone forms and the love of them and the emotion can only be expressed in more abstract terms’.[34]

Matthew Gale
July 1997, revised 1999

[1] F.G. Prince-White, ‘Horse Carved from 2 1/2 Ton Mahogany’, Daily Mail, 12 Jan. 1934.
[2] John Skeaping, Drawn from Life: An Autobiography, London 1977, p.101.
[3] Ibid.

[4] G[ui] St B[ernard], ‘Sculptor’s 12ft Horse: Bond Street Monster’, Daily News Chronicle, 22 Jan. 1934, p.9.

[5] Ibid.
[6] Tate Archive presscutting misidentified as Daily Sketch, 24 Jan. 1934.
[7] Tate Archive presscutting misidentified as Guardian, 2 Feb. 1934

[8] ‘New Sculpture by John Skeaping at Messrs. Tooth’s Gallery’, Apollo, vol.19, no.110, Feb. 1934, p.114.

[9] Tate Archive presscutting misidentified as Guardian, 2 Feb. 1934.

[10] Tate conservation files.

[11] Sandra Deighton, ‘John Skeaping: The Horse’, in Jackie Heuman ed., Material Matters: Conservation of Modern Sculpture, London 1999, pp.52-61.

[12] Ibid. p.60.

[13] Skeaping 1977, p.101.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Deighton 1999, p.60.

[16] Skeaping, undated letter to J.B. Manson, Tate Archive TGA 806.1.852.
[17] Minutes of 18 November 1936, Zoological Society: Minutes of Council, vol.XXX, 1933-37, p.376, Zoological Society of London Archive.
[18] Whipsnade Occurrences 1937, Zoological Society of London Archive.

[19] Reports of the Council ... for the Year 1937, 1938, p.15, Zoological Society of London Archive.

[20] Minutes of 15 June 1938, Zoological Society: Minutes of Council, vol.XXXI, 1937-9, pp.155-7, Zoological Society of London Archive.
[21] Skeaping 1977, p.105.
[22] Minutes of 17 January 1945, Zoological Society: Minutes of Council, vol.XXXII, 1939-46, p.398, Zoological Society of London Archive.
[23] Minutes of 21 Feb. 1945, ibid., p.401.
[24] Tate Gallery Board Minutes 1945.
[25] Skeaping 1977, p.105.

[26] G[wen] Raverat. ‘Sculpture’, Time and Tide, 3 Feb. 1934, p.152.

[27] Geoffrey Jellicoe, ‘Modern British Sculpture’, Studio, vol.12, Jan. 1930, pp.26-31.
[28] Skeaping, ‘The Relation of Sculpture to Architecture’, Listener, vol.10, 14 March 1934, pp.456-7; lecture, Cambridge in Granta, May 1934.
[29] Skeaping, March 1934.

[30] F.G. Prince-White, ‘Horse Carved from 2 1/2 Ton Mahogany’, Daily Mail, 12 Jan. 1934, p.18.
[31] Tate Archive TGA 921.15.

[32] Barbara Hepworth to Ben Nicholson, letter postmarked 22 July 1932, Tate Archive TGA 8717.1.1.82.
[33] Reproduced in colour in exhibition catatalogue, Ackermann 1991 p.42, no.52.

[34] Hepworth, Unit One, London 1934, p.19.



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