Derby winner stabled in collection founded by ‘mystery man of the British turf’

The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle backed a winner with its acquisition in September 2011 of an oil painting of a successful racehorse owned by the museum’s founder, John Bowes.

Bowes, still universally recognised as one of the most successful stud owners and racehorse breeders of the 19th Century, was a keen racegoer known as the ‘mystery man of the British turf’.

Around 1852, the year his horse Daniel O’Rourke won the Epsom Derby, Bowes commissioned leading equine portraitist Harry Hall to paint the ‘little pony’, as he was affectionately known owing to his lack of stature. The painting, Mr John Bowes’ Daniel O’Rourke with Frank Butler Up, depicts, as implied, the horse with jockey Butler on board.

An oil painting on canvas, it was bought at auction by The Bowes Museum for £18,000, with the support of the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Art Fund, the national fundraising charity for works of art; and the Friends of The Bowes Museum.

The work, which measures 51.5 x 65.5cms, also depicts a distinguished gentleman in top hat and tails, who is holding the horse’s rug. This is probably a Mr Markwell, recorded as leading in Bowes’ winners during the 1850s.

Equine portraiture was in great demand during the 19th Century, not only to adorn the homes of gentlemen who wished to immortalise their winning thoroughbreds, but prints were widely sought after by keen followers of the sport and by publicans who wished to decorate their premises.

Each year Hall produced paintings which were engraved and published to commemorate the winners of the Derby, St Leger, Gold Cup and other classic races. A regular contributor to The Field, The Sporting Magazine and the Illustrated London News, he was in effect a sporting journalist in paint.

Daniel O’Rourke was under 15 hands high, yet Bowes’ trainer John Scott, and Butler the jockey, thought highly of him. And although he’d run a disappointing race in the 2000 Guineas, they held fast to their opinion that he stood a good chance of winning the Derby.

The day of the race dawned with incessant rain, which didn’t lift until just before the start of the race – yet despite this and the horse running at odds of 25/1, well down in the betting against 26 contenders, he justified the trust put in him by gamely battling it out to cross the finish line half a length in front of his nearest rival.

The Museum’s Keeper of Fine Art, Emma House, said: “Whilst equine portraits regularly come up for sale, many of them were produced quickly after the finish of a race and therefore lack the quality of this painting. Hall has taken great care in the depiction of the horse, portraying in great detail Daniel O’Rourke’s markings and likeness. The portrait details of Frank Butler and Mr Markwell are also particularly fine.

“Together with the detailed landscape setting, this is a particularly fine equestrian painting of one of our founder’s most important horses, and it adds to our significantly growing collection of John Bowes memorabilia.”

Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund said: “It is so gratifying to be able to help museums buy work at auction. With the connection to John Bowes and his love of all things equestrian, this painting has found its natural home.”

The painting, which is now on show, complements The Bowes Museum’s existing works while enabling the museum to explore Bowes’ racing successes in further detail.

The Bowes Museum was created over 100 years ago by an extraordinary couple, John and Josephine Bowes.  Together they built up the greatest private collection of fine and decorative arts in the North of England and constructed a magnificent building to house them in.  The collection contains thousands of objects including furniture, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, textiles and many other items covering an extensive range of European styles and periods.

The Bowes Museum, Café Bowes and Shop are open daily from 10.00. A full programme of events and exhibitions is available by calling 01833 690606 or by viewing the website at


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