Artist Angela Palmer’s latest exhibition – currently on show at Waterhouse & Dodd in London until 15th June – takes the viewer on a journey through space and time.
Above and main picture: Angela Palmer’s portrait of Eclipse
Above: Portrait of author Robert Harris
Above: Self-portrait by Angela Palmer
Using digital information provided by MRI and CT scans, Angela peels back layers to uncover a hidden natural world, and ‘maps’ these patterns onto individual sheets of glass.
Amongst her varied subjects is one of the world’s most famous racehorses: Eclipse was unbeaten in the 18 races he ran in between 1769 and 1771, and when no runners were entered against him he was forced to retire.
He then sired many hundreds of foals, and his bloodlines can be traced down through history. His descendants include the Duke of Wellington’s Copenhagen, and more recently Desert Orchid and Kauto Star. Remarkably, experts believe up to 95 per cent of today’s thoroughbred racehorses can trace their family trees back to Eclipse.
The eventual death of Eclipse at the age of 25 had enormous impact beyond his services to bloodstock: it led to the founding of the now world famous Royal Veterinary College (RVC). On Eclipse’s death in 1789 experts were determined to establish the physiological secrets of his success on the racecourse and a veterinary opinion was sought. However there was no veterinary school and no qualified veterinarian in the country except the Frenchman Charles Vial de Sainbel. He duly attended the corpse of Eclipse and performed the first known autopsy on a horse. St Bel’s ambition was to establish a veterinary college, and with support from Granville Penn from Odiham Agricultural Society, The Veterinary College, London, was formed in 1791, progressing from a horse infirmary to the august institution it is today.
In a separate study led by Dr Renate Weller, The Structure and Motion group at the RVC attempted to unlock the secrets of Eclipse’s speed. Using contemporary paintings, CT scans of his skeleton and reports of his races, the team reconstructed one of Eclipse’s legs on a computer to study his movement. Researchers discovered that his legendary speed may have actually been due to his ‘averageness’. In short, a great racehorse
needs to be more than just quick footed – it must also be rather average.
Dr Alan Wilson, who was part of the study team, said: “All the factors for speed were perfectly matched. A key ability for a fast horse is to be able to bring its legs forward quickly, which is difficult for large animals with long limbs. Eclipse was smaller than modern racehorses. Rather than being some freak of nature with incredible properties, he was actually just right in absolutely every way.”
Today his skeleton is preserved and studied at the RVC in Hertfordshire, where Oxford-based artist Angela Palmer first came across it: “I was working in collaboration with the Royal Veterinary College and told them I always wanted to create the head of a horse.
“The first one I created was based on the MRI scans of a horse which had been taken to the RVC and the radiologist there, Dr Renate Weller, explained they had the skeleton of the greatest horse in racing history – Eclipse – and she offered to remove his head and scan him for me. It was incredibly exciting, and of course a huge privilege.”
For this piece, the skull of the horse was placed in the scanner, from which Palmer was able to build an inside-out sculpture. The result is a unique portrait which closes the gap between art and science.
“In order to create my work, I take MRI or CT scans, and either engrave or draw in ink the details from these scans onto mulptiple sheets of glass. The result is a three-dimensional image of the subject ‘floating’ in glass. It’s very ethereal, from the side you see nothing, but as you walk around the image takes form in your view and it’s like the entire form is floating in air.”
Having a lifelong interest in horses, Angela’s opportunity to ‘map’ Eclipse revived an excitement for racing she had previously only touched upon:
“I have always been very keen on horses, and used to compete in equestrian events when I was younger.
“Between school and starting art college in Edinburgh I had a job at a stables working as a groom in Germany where I looked after both racehorses and showjumpers. I also had the opportunity to compete in a few showjumping competitions in Germany during that period. I did get the chance to ride one of their racehorses round the racecourse, and it was incredibly exhilarating and frightening in equal measure!
“I think the closest I’ve got otherwise to racing is being friends with the owners of Desert Orchid, and it was very exciting following his progress during the early years. I think I drank champagne from his Gold Cup at the Polish Hearth Club in London after one of his wins.
“It was fascinating recreating the head of Eclipse, and I think he looks magnificent. I would love to work on further projects in the racing world, and would welcome any approaches on this front. Horses will always be my favourite subject, and I’d jump at the chance of doing more work in the racing world.”
Angela Palmer’s exhibition – Life Lines – is on show at Waterhouse & Dodd, 26 Cork Street, London W1S 3ND, until 15th June 2012. Tel. +44 (0)20 7734 7800 or see www.waterhousedodd.com/exhibitions/palmer