The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Robert Bevan Horse Sale at the Barbican 1912

The Royal City Horse and Carriage Repository located at 56 Barbican in Aldersgate was one of many horse markets in London. Bevan’s painting is made from the perspective of a viewer outside the ring of action: handlers lead a tawny horse through the crowd of men in bowler hats towards the booth of the auctioneer. Bevan’s horse-sale series overlapped with his cab-yard pictures. Both trades would succumb to the motor car by the end of the 1920s.
Robert Bevan 1865–1925
Horse Sale at the Barbican
Oil paint on canvas
787 x 1219 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1934



While still engaged in making pictures of cab-yards, Bevan extended his interest in the London working horse and began to visit the auctions where they were sold throughout the capital. His earliest recorded horse-auction picture is A Sale at Tattersall’s dating from 1911 (private collection),1 and he continued making sale-subject paintings into the 1920s. Although they overlapped with his cab-yard series, the horse-market pictures eventually replaced them, and became the central focus of his artistic interest. Bevan appears to have been rather pricked by observations, such as the critic Frank Rutter’s, that his interest in the cab-horse was motivated by some sort of nostalgic desire to record it because it was dying out (see Tate N05911). Bevan’s son recorded that ‘he told me many years later when I asked him why he had given up painting hansom-cabs for which he was perhaps best known in these years, he was anxious not to be accused of sentimentalising an almost vanished feature of London life’.2 This is significant, because it indicates that Bevan’s interest in such horse subjects was in their realism and in their being illustrations of everyday working life and metropolitan experience. In a sense, both the cab and auction subjects were a kind of documentation of a London trade somewhat in the tradition of The Cries of London, the famous series of pictures by Francis Wheatley (1747–1801) which appeared as prints between 1793 and 1796, or the sociological investigations contained in Henry Mayhew’s influential study London Labour and the London Poor (1851).
Bevan’s son, R.A. Bevan, recorded that:
he rather relished looking like a man who had to do more with horses and hounds than with canvas and paint. The brim of his bowler hat was flattened, his overcoats had little buttons at the back of the waist ... He always looked at home at Tattersall’s and other places where the horse took the centre of the stage. He looked neither like a bohemian nor like a business-man ... As children we were very conscious of the importance of the horse in our father’s life. We were often allowed to go with him when he was making drawings for cab-yard and horse-sale pictures. In earlier years he took us, of course, by horse-bus, and we sat on the front seats on top so that he could talk horses to the driver. At Tattersall’s and Aldridge’s, the Barbican and Ward’s Repository there would always be a word or two with dealers and with handlers – and even with the bearded, top-hatted auctioneer – who all seemed rather surprised that anyone should think they were worth drawing.3
Robert Bevan 'Showing at Tattersall's' c.1919
Robert Bevan
Showing at Tattersall's c.1919
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Photo © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Robert Bevan 'Showing the Paces, Aldridge's' c.1913–14
Robert Bevan
Showing the Paces, Aldridge's c.1913–14
Huddersfield Art Gallery
Photo © Huddersfield Art Gallery

There were several horse sales in London and a distinct social hierarchy existed between them, deriving from the kind of horses in which they specialised. Bevan painted sales at Tattersall’s at Knightsbridge Green (fig.1), Aldridge’s in Upper St Martin’s Lane (fig.2), at the Barbican and Aldersgate in the City, and Ward’s Repository in Edgware Road. Tattersall’s was the most well to do, as it specialised in selling hunters and carriage-horses, but the others specialised in working horses for tradesmen and cab companies and attracted a very different social class of buyer or dealer. The Barbican horse sale started sometime in the eighteenth century and lasted some two hundred years. Located at 56 Barbican, in the Aldersgate district of the City, it operated under a variety of names at different times. When Bevan painted his picture it was called the Royal City Horse and Carriage Repository, but in 1919 it changed its name simply to the Barbican Repository. The company ceased to trade in 1926, and was formally dissolved by notice in the London Gazette of 16 December 1930.4 By the end of the 1920s motor transport had replaced horses to a large degree, and the continuation of the horse markets became economically untenable. Some horse-sale businesses survived by switching to selling motor cars.

Subject and composition

Bevan lived in Adamson Road NW3, so the Barbican was some distance away. He may have caught the bus, as his son recalls, or he would have been able to catch a direct train on the Metropolitan line of the Underground from Swiss Cottage, a short distance from his home, to the stop at Aldersgate, near where the horse sale took place. In Horse Sale at the Barbican Bevan shows a horse on the right being led to the front of the ‘ring’ ready to be bid on, while the one on the left is led away after having been sold. The figures dressed in white cloth or canvas jackets are handlers who work for the auction. The one on the right holds a harness and blinkers, presumably taken off the horse that is about to be sold. His colleague near the centre of the composition draws back a whip to encourage the horse’s swift passage through the ring. The auctioneer sits in the raised booth, leaning forward towards his audience, his authority embodied in his top hat. It is largely through their headgear that the audience reveals their social position and their significance as buyers at the auction. Today it is easy to underestimate the complex nuances of rank, prestige or respectability that a man’s hat suggested. Everybody wore hats, and the type chosen said a great deal about the individual or the occasion for which it was worn. Cloth caps were the usual, everyday attire of the worker, although they might also be the choice of dukes and gentry when in the country. The bowler hat, which is worn by the majority of those gathered in Bevan’s picture, indicated generally a higher social rank than the worker, perhaps the respectable clerk, or small businessman of the type who would attend such a sale. It was also associated with those connected with horses. Only one man wears a low-crowned top hat, evidently someone who is a larger or wealthier dealer or buyer. Other aspects of dress indicate the wearers’ proximity to their trade; the men wearing breeches, gaiters and boots are evidently clothed to ride horses, although such attire might also be associated with cab drivers. Much of the character of the figures is communicated through their poses. They have the posture of men who have been standing for some time. The sale might have started before dawn, as the presence of the electric lights in the background suggest. Beneath these are posters, with which the Barbican Repository advertised the types of horses to be sold. Bevan does not try to include any text, but taken in 1926, just before its closure, a photograph of the Barbican sale shows posters advertising ‘Ice Vanners’, ‘Cart Horses’ and ‘Draught Horses’. The photograph includes the crowd and auctioneer in a scene not unlike Bevan’s picture.5
Horse Sale at the Barbican was one of the largest pictures Bevan ever made, and has less of the contrasts or extremes of colour which characterised his earlier work. The colouring is subtle and modulated, and the paint has a dry and chalky character. An unfoliated sketchbook in the Ashmolean Museum, inscribed ‘to April 1915’ on the front cover, contains a large number of studies in pencil of single figures, figure groups, the auctioneer and his booth, and the progress of the horses being led into and out of the ring which relate to Horse Sale at the Barbican.6 The successive nature of the horse sketches, and the shifting poses of the crowd, indicate that these were evidently drawn on the spot. The sketchbook also contains a study for the overall composition of the oil which has the same distribution of figures and horses, but grouped much more tightly together. For the final oil composition Bevan has stretched out his design, spreading out the figures until they resemble something akin to a frieze. The extended format makes the drawing back of the central handler’s whip somewhat unrealistic. He is too far from the horse’s flanks for it to be effective, and in the original compact sketchbook design he is much closer. The painting was finally transferred from a large squared-up final drawing in crayon and watercolour measuring 369 x 559 mm, now in the Ashmolean Museum, identical in its composition to the finished oil.7

Exhibition and reception

At the third Camden Town Group exhibition Bevan exhibited The Horse Mart, with an asking price of 35 guineas, as against 20 guineas for another sale picture entitled Quiet with all Road Nuisances. It is likely that The Horse Mart was Horse Sale at the Barbican which, with its larger scale and complexity of composition, would justify a higher price. The picture went unsold. When Horse Sale at the Barbican was shown at the Cumberland Market Group exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in 1915, Frank Rutter wrote:
Mr. Robert Bevan, whose ‘horsy’ paintings have long delighted the connoisseur, is seen at his very best in his important painting ‘A Sale at the Barbican’ (19). Here is a finely decorative treatment of a scene from life, the figures simplified so as to tell in the mass, but not reduced to insignificance, the composition rhythmical and effective, and the colour brilliant and decoratively balanced. Mr. Bevan’s colour is highly personal, and may offend some by its sheer honesty, for it is his characteristic to avoid ambiguity and compromise. He has no use for neutral tints and whitey-black greys, but pursues the prismatic splendour of sunlight even into shadows, always preferring a definite blue to a bluish-grey, a definite mauve to an indefinite mauvish-grey, and so on. This gives extraordinary brilliance to his colour, but tends to make it ‘unreal’ in the sight of those, less gifted with colour perception, who see London in drabs and greys and biscuit tints.8
Bevan made a number of other pictures of the Barbican Repository. These include At the Barbican c.1913 (private collection),9 a crayon drawing of a horse being led out of the ring with the auctioneer’s booth viewed from the same position as in the Tate painting; The Horse Mart, Barbican no.1 1917–18 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven),10 an oil of horses being led from the ring into the stables, of which Bevan published a lithograph in 1920 with the same title;11 Horse Dealers at the Barbican (Barbican No.2) 1921,12 another lithograph; and The Barbican c.1921 (Wakefield City Art Gallery),13 in crayon and watercolour showing one of the horses being trotted friskily round and which once belonged to Charles Ginner.
When Horse Sale at the Barbican was considered by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest, James Bolivar Manson, Director of the Tate Gallery, wrote to Bevan’s wife:
The picture passed through the Chantrey Recommending Committee with unanimous support. It has to appear before the President and Council [of the Royal Academy]. There’s not likely to be any difficulty now. Though I don’t like the frame.14

Robert Upstone
May 2009


Reproduced in Frances Stenlake, Robert Bevan: From Gauguin to Camden Town, London 2008, p.98.
R.A. Bevan, Robert Bevan 1865–1925: A Memoir by his Son, London 1965, p.17.
Ibid., p.20.
PRO BT /31/25241/106702 and HO 144/23010.
London Metropolitan Archives, City of London. Shelfmark: Photo.A 45:10 (cat. no. M0027695d).
Robert Bevan, Sketchbook IV.4.17, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Reproduced in Bevan 1965, pl.42.
Frank Rutter, ‘Round the Galleries: The Goupil Gallery’, Sunday Times, April 1915.
Private collection, reproduced in British Drawings and Watercolours 1890–1940, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1982. This is likely to have been a design for a print that was never executed.
Reproduced in Bevan 1965, pl.64.
Reproduced in Graham Dry, Robert Bevan 1865–1925: Catalogue Raisonné of the Lithographs and Other Prints, London 1968, no.34.
Reproduced ibid., no.35.
Reproduced in Bevan 1965, pl.76.
James Bolivar Manson, letter to Stanislawa de Karlowska, Tate Archive TGA 9210/1/4.

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘Horse Sale at the Barbican 1912 by Robert Bevan’, catalogue entry, May 2009, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 02 March 2024.