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Snowy vistas, low horizons: The long cold history of ice skating 2

a black and white photograph of a man skating towards the camera with his hands behind his back

Charles.J. Tebbutt at Littleport, January 1893, unknown photographer © Cambridgeshire Archives

Photographs, paintings, films and objects come together for a cool exploration of skating at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art in Newmarket

There are some memorable evocations of ice skating in English literature – notably in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and William Wordsworth’s The Prelude. And anyone who has read Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden must remember the wonderful Ely skating scene.

But given the fickle nature of Britain’s winter our relationship with skating in recent years is a rather less literary one informed by TV viewing of the Winter Olympics, a celebrity skating show – and of course the boozy tradition of temporary outside skating rinks, which now happily pop up around the country during Christmas time.

So this charming exhibition takes us back in time, via an intriguing collection of 30 works from the past 400 years, ranging from 17th-century Flemish paintings and Victorian panoramic scenes to 20th-century photographs (including those taken by the iconic Bassano studio), vintage skates and even Pathé films.

Newmarket is a surprisingly fitting location too, given that the surrounding fens, rivers and waterways provided not only an alternative transportation network in times gone but also a source of winter sport and leisure that still persists today.

an old black and white studio photo of a man in his skating gear

Donoghue in racing costume and on skates, Unknown photographer © Cambridgeshire Archives

a photo of two men in a wintry landscape wearing skates

Turkey Smart and William See, unknown photographer, 1895 © Cambridgeshire Archives

The Flemish paintings evoke a similar landscape the fens, revealing how people living in Flanders during the 17th-century used frozen waterways as a means of going about their business, and having some fun at the same time.

Both Cornelis Beelt’s Skaters on a Frozen River (c. 1660) and Anthonie Verstraelen’s 1640 sketch, Ice Scene, show how apparently wealthy seventeenth century Flemings gathered on the shores of rivers to enjoy some leisurely skating.

The Victorians were also dab hands at depicting social gatherings amidst snowy vistas with low horizons. Two paintings by Charles Lees, who studied under Henry Raeburn (the man who painted The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, which is sadly not featured in the exhibition) include Skaters on Duddingston Loch by Moonlight (1857) and Skating on Linlithgow Loch (1858).

‘Turkey’ Smart was so-called due to his distinctive flapping style as he raced across the ice

Charles Cundall’s 1933 watercolour, Skaters on the Mill Pond at Beaulieu, shows how the tradition continued into the 20th century, but it is the collection of later Victorian lantern slides and the series of photographs by Bassano that demonstrate how skating wasn’t just a social pastime, but also a sporting and artistic endeavour in its own right.

The prints from the lantern slides are particularly enjoyable; plucked from the Cambridgeshire Archives, they give us evocative glimpses into 19th-century skating in the East Anglian fens and of people gathered at Littleport and Lingay to watch or compete in a series of contests on the frozen waterways.

Some of the stars of the time are commemorated in the slides, with Charles J Tebbutt and Fred Ward brilliantly frozen in time, and the wonderfully named ‘Turkey’ Smart and Walter Housden racing on Lingay Fen. Smart was so-called due to his distinctive flapping style as he raced across the ice.

At this time, speed skating and figure skating  became a way that people could supplement their wages by winning the large cash prizes on offer at regional skating competitions. Wagers were made on the competitors, just as they are on dogs and horses today.

a drawing of seventeenth century Flemish people skating

Anthonie Verstraelen, Ice scene , c. 1640, pen and brown ink and watercolour. Private collection

a painting of skaters skating across a frozen lake by moonlight

Skaters on Duddingston Loch by Moonlight, Charles Lees, 1857 © Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation

a painting of people in top hats and long coats staring across a frozen lake

Winter scene with a group of golfers on a frozen river, c.1654-72 (oil on panel) by Velde, Adriaen van de (1636-72); Manchester Art Gallery, UK; Dutch out of copyright

Next to these Victorian prints, the Bassano photographs offer a taste of art-deco glamour capturing the leading figure skating personalities from the mid-20th-century.

Gone are woollen, heavy threads, replaced by the figure-hugging modern fabrics that not only allowed skaters to move more freely and elegantly but also revealed more of the body itself. These photographs, which include Britain’s Olympic ice skating star of the 1930s also mirror the emerging political emancipation of women and what was deemed appropriate to wear in social and sporting contexts.

Today of course, Britain’s most enduring skating couple is Jane Torvil and Christopher Dean, whose exploits at the Winter Olympics in 1984 caused an outpouring of national pride of the kind usually reserved for a British/Scottish win at Wimbledon – or a Royal Wedding.

The pair duly make an appearance here in one of a series of National Portrait Gallery photo portraits, which also feature the late Olympic ice dancer John Curry, a man whose balletic rink routines introduced words like triple Salchow, Lutz and axel to the British vocabulary.

But to further illustrate just how long men and women have taken to the ice, Skating has a display of skates loaned from the Norris Museum in St Ives, Cambridgeshire. These include a pair of stout leather ankle boots, complete with skates from Norway and a pair of early Dutch skates.

a photo of a young woman in skating gear apparently holding her legs in an impossible position

Cecilia Colledge, Bassano Ltd, 24 November 1938 © National Portrait Gallery, London

a photo of a young man in a jumper holding a pair of ice skates

John Curry, Bern Schwartz, 1977 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Skating is at Palace House, Newmarket, from November 15 2018 – April 28 2019.


National Horse Racing Museum

Newmarket, Suffolk

The National Horse Racing Museum is situated in Charles II’s sporting palace and stables and spans five acres in the heart of Newmarket. It comprises three complementary attractions; a new National Horseracing Museum, a National Art Gallery of British Sporting Art, and a chance to meet former racehorses and learn…

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