When sculptor Philip Blacker retired as a jockey, his involvement with racehorses was far from over, as he explains to Janet Menzies
Sculptor Philip Blacker uses his experience in the saddle as a former jockey to capture the spirit of the horses in his work.
Find out how sporting artist Elie Lambert captures the beauty of the horse with vibrant colours. Or take a look at how Dee Taylor combines the pop-art of Lichtenstein with the colour of the racecourse to winning effect.
SCULPTOR PHILIP BLACKER
Red Rum liked to race with his ears pinned flat back for aero-dynamic advantage, but as he crossed the line for his third Grand National win in 1977 he pricked them forward for a split second in an equine V for victory sign to fans and doubters alike.
Sculptor Philip Blacker had first come across Rummy a few years earlier. He remembers: “We were going down to Becher’s the second time. Crisp was a fence in front and I was upsides Red Rum, and I looked across at Brian Fletcher on Red Rum and then he just started to draw away from us.
“I was on Spanish Steps and I thought we would win that year because Spanish Steps was a very good horse, he had a lot of class. So I had high hopes. But he was carrying 11st 13lb, which I think was top weight, or Crisp might have been giving him a pound or two. The race turned out to be a blistering pace. It was the most extraordinary race, and we were always struggling. Poor old Spanish Steps got very tired in the end and we were fourth I think. And that was my first experience of Red Rum as a horse.”
It would be far from his last. Red Rum may have swept past him in the race, but it was the legendary Rummy who launched Blacker’s second career as a sculptor. “It was more than 10 years later, in 1986, that I was commissioned to do the sculpture of Red Rum, which now stands at Aintree. I went to Southport and met Ginger McCain and it was a wonderful experience and I saw Red Rum cantering on the sands; he was retired by then. When I sculpted him I didn’t want to do the classic standing piece, I wanted to do him as I saw him on the sands and he was jig-jogging with a high head carriage and that was how I wanted to do him, jogging, and I was trying to capture his spirit. He was an extraordinary horse.”
As a sculptor, Blacker is uniquely placed to show not just the appearance of his equine subjects but also communicate from the saddle the close-up feel and personality of these special horses. “When I stopped racing I was very aware that I was in the unusual position of being a professional jockey and felt I could capture something about racing in its spirit that other people haven’t experienced, so that was the opportunity I went for.”
Blacker had planned this step for some time. “I had always had an interest in sculpture, which I developed from looking at racing trophies. I would look at the trophy and wonder about the actual process. And as luck would have it, during the ’70s there was a petrol crisis and so everyone was saving fuel by getting lifts. I was riding at Devon and Exeter and we picked up the owner, and it was the sculptor Margot Dent. I asked her, ‘How do you do it?’ We talked about it all the way down to the races and I was invited to come and study with her.”
Dent advised Blacker to learn anatomy. “My heart sank because I thought, I am going to have to be a doctor. But I went to the Royal Veterinary College to sit in on classes and you could see every part of the anatomy and that was fascinating. Then I was excited by the practical challenge of how do you capture movement while still being able to support the sculpture? So I learnt about armatures and taught myself to weld. And I knew I could show the way jockeys do various things, and give an insider’s view.”
Fortunately, Blacker was able to persuade Major Ivan Straker, then managing director of Grand National sponsor Seagram, about his ideas. “I was so excited about the Red Rum sculpture. I had packed in riding in the early ’80s and I wanted to do this big sculpture of Rummy and I managed to get the commission to do the new trophy and a life-size sculpture of Red Rum to go with it. That was the first one I did.”
Since then, Blacker has become internationally known – and not just for his equestrian sculptures. “I think I am most proud of doing the World War I centenary friezes, which are bas-relief of life behind the front lines, with a new patination technique. I would love to do more friezes but they are very heavy and really more suited to a public space than private homes. I have also been doing more two-dimensional work. I love painting and it gives me that opportunity to explore new subject matter.”
Even though his work is artistically far reaching, racing is still in Blacker’s veins. “It was so exciting to retire and become a sculptor, even though my riding career was adventurous – and I was privileged to ride good horses at great race meetings like the Cheltenham Festival. I dream about that even now, that I am back riding for Stan Mellor.”
Philip Blacker’s work can be seen at Rowles Fine Art in Ludlow (rowlesfineart.co.uk) and on their stand at The Game Fair from 23-25 July (thegamefair.org)
Note: in the 1973 Grand National, Red Rum and Brian Fletcher (10st 5lb) beat Crisp and Richard Pitman (12st) by ¾ length; L’Escargot and Tommy Carberry (12st) were 25 lengths behind in 3rd, followed by Spanish Steps and Philip Blacker (11st 13lb) in 4th.