Exhibition review: Lowes Dalbiac Luard at the Vestesy Gallery

In the 1900s, Paris was a city of growth and bustle, full of Percherons hauling stone and timber to the building sites. The muscular power of the great French heavy horses captivated English painter Lowes Dalbiac Luard, who had trained at the Slade and then studied in Paris under Lucien Simon and René Ménard. Enthralled by the city, he moved there in 1905 with his wife, Louey, and baby daughter, Veronica, and stayed for nearly 30 years.

There, he produced masterpieces such as the oil Timberhauling on the Seine, in which a team of horses strive to reach the top of the bank, the Seine behind calm and cool in contrast with the straining beasts and the whip-cracking carters. In the pastel Stonecart Bird’s Eye View, in which six Percherons haul a massive block of stone, it is the details of the work, as well as the unusual viewpoint, that make it remarkable the connection of the gaze between the carter and the lead horse, the squabble between the middle pair, the sturdy cart beneath the vast pale bulk of the stone.

However, Luard was also a lover of repose. Percherons at Water shows four horses belly deep in a river, the carter slumped on one of the broad backs, a world away from the bustle undoubtedly raging on the bridge above. In Up the Boulevard, four horses pull a great load slowly up an avenue, the dappled sunlight reflecting off the sunbaked road, with two carters deep in conversation ambling beside them.

As the horse gave way to machinery, Luard turned to the racetrack for inspiration, often travelling to Newmarket to sketch. He delighted in capturing the speed and spirit of the horses in action, over fences, on the flat or at the start. Luard worked in oil, pastel, watercolour, pencil and aquatint, as well as creating etchings and lithographs. His use of pastel is particularly striking in the impressively large Steeplechase, where broad dashes of colour blend into the gleam of the horses’ coats and the bright splashes of the jockeys’ silks.

Throughout the exhibition, large works are flanked by smaller sketches. In a few sure, spare strokes, Luard captured the pent-up speed of the horses, their muscles rippling as their jockeys hold them in check.

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The most evocative sketches, however, are those done at the Front in the First World War, during which he was mentioned in despatches five times and awarded the DSO and Croix de Guerre. Shortly after his one-man show in London in 1914, Luard joined up, lamenting having to interrupt his career. He wrote letters home that were peppered with drawings, and filled school exercise books with images of his fellow soldiers. His wartime works, mainly in pencil and water colour, are imbued with personal experience and heavy with loss and exhaustion, the powerful quarters of the Percheron gun teams helpless in the mud.

In this exhibition, the grey images of war emphasise the brightness of the tiny pochades (oil on wooden panels) of racehorses, children playing or harvest time. They are bursting with colour, vivid yellows, reds and blues. In the unusually composed Man beneath High Cloudscape, a great expanse of soft blue sky above a sweep of cornfield horizon is anchored by the upper body of a man, just in frame, bent over invisible toil. A remarkable work is Bonfire, a swirl of black, red and gold reminiscent of William Blake that allowed the artist to portray a different kind of movement the wind-whipped flames.

Luard enjoyed fame in his lifetime, exhibiting in Paris and London and being appointed an Official War Artist in 1939. His successful books Horses and Movement (1921) and The Horse: Its Action and Anatomy by An Artist (1935) rival Stubbs for their attention to detail and anatomy. Yet he has been sadly forgotten since his untimely death in 1944.

Many of his works are in private collections, so this exhibition, thoughtfully curated by Luard’s grandson Lord Nicholas Lyell and the British Sporting Art Trust, offers a rare chance to see them together. The range of compositions and mediums, from sensitive portraits to dynamic racing scenes, is extraordinary, and deserves to be admired.

‘Lowes Dalbiac Luard 1872–1944: A Passion for Movement’ is at the Vestey Gallery, in the National Horseracing Museum, Newmarket, Suffolk, until November 1 (01638 664429; www.bsat.co.uk; www.nhrm.co.uk)