The more I’ve learned about research over the last decade, the more I’ve realised how easy it is to slip up. I’ve seen how one writer’s creative suggestion becomes “fact” in the next book down the line, and I’ve made that mistake myself. I’ve also endeavoured, when possible, to have the issues corrected in reprints. These tiny gaffes are often a matter of elision that results in misreading. Take the discussion surrounding Sir Edwin Landseer’s famous 1861 painting, The Shrew Tamed.
Several authorities claim that the woman in the painting is Skittles, aka Catherine Walters, the beautiful courtesan and queen of the “pretty horsebreakers” as the demi-mondaines who rode and drove in Hyde Park among the cream of society were known. Indeed, the painting is also known as “The Pretty Horsebreaker”. Writers are correct in claiming that Landseer’s painting stirred up contemporary anxieties as to whether these elegant young women were not only leading young men astray, but also respectable young women and even their mothers, eager to make their daughters more marriageable through imitation of these glamorous figures. Indeed, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine wrote at the time: “We hope it will now be felt by Sir Edwin Landseer and his friends that the intrusion of ‘pretty-horse-breakers’ on the walls of the Academy is not less to be regretted than their presence in Rotten Row.”
But Landseer did not paint Skittles. He painted another equestrienne who has appeared again and again in my research concerning the pretty horsebreakers, and who fascinates me although no one has yet written her biography. Her name is Annie Gilbert and it is not clear whether she was a courtesan or not. She was a professional horsewoman, skirting the line of respectability by a) earning her own living, b) doing so riding horses and c) occasionally working as an artist’s model. Here’s the London Daily News‘ review of Landseer’s painting when it was unveiled at the Royal Academy in 1861:
“‘The Shrew Tamed’ (135), by Sir Edwin Landseer, displays perhaps more real power than the large and ambitious work of last year. This picture has been painted, we hear, in compliment to Miss Gilbert, the accomplished horsewoman who has so thoroughly mastered Mr Rarey’s system of horse-taming as to have practised it herself with perfect success. A vicious thoroughbred mare has had, as we see from the strap now thrown aside, its leg bound up, and after a struggle to which the condition of the straw bears witness, lies thrown. The ‘shrew’ is at length so entirely subdued that she now permits her mistress to recline at full length on her shoulder, and even advances her muzzle at the patting of the small fair hand, as if begging for a caress to seal a better understanding for the future. Sir Edwin has indicated the extinction of fire in the mare’s eye too strongly; the result is the poor creature looks wall-eyed. The lady’s self-possession and saucily assumed air of conqueror are highly amusing. A spaniel at a safe distance, high up on the trusses of straw, seems to enjoy his mistress’s triumph. The drawing of the mare and the subtle metallic changefulness of her colouring of her sleek hind quarters are most masterly, though the texture of her coat is too satiny. The execution is throughout of the most daring kind: the straw in particular, though extremely sketchy, is so suggestive as to perfectly satisfy the eye.”
Annie’s role is confirmed by Royal Academy documents quoted in a 2009 Oxford Art Journal article by Pamela Fletcher called “Narrative Painting and Visual Gossip at the Early-Twentieth-Century Royal Academy”. She also appears in William Powell’s Frith’s “The Derby Day” panorama. The London Look: Fashion from Street to Catwalk by Christopher Breward, Edwina Ehrman and Caroline Evans describes her as “beautiful, witty and consumptive”. She was tough enough to ride for hours with the Queen’s Hounds, whose master approved of few “Dianas” but allowed for her “cheerful spirit and dashing riding” (quoted in The Queen’s Hounds and Stag-Hunting Recollections by Thomas Lister, page 73).
Extracts from some of Landseer’s letters at the time suggest a woman at ease in male company:
“Do tell me talking of neighbours — if you will let me have your carriage one night to take Annie G. to the play (with her sister) and will you give Hills leave to receive them at 1 5 L. P. afterwards? for a glass of soda water? — A. G. has no end of lovers, but seems to patronize me! I suppose she thinks my Picture will be a trump card for her. She has got a little too fat in some places — she says if I finish the Picture and people rave about it she will richly reward me! I am trying to do things soberly.” (December 1858 to Jacob Bell)
“Annie Gilbert has had a fall Hunting — but is not much the worse — I hope soon to finish the group in which she is no. 1 copper bottomed. She had a party the other Eve her Birthday & asked me — the lot were rather too fast for me sober as I have become & I did not go.” (another letter to Bell, both quoted in Sir Edwin Landseer, by Richard Ormond.)
I don’t know what happened to Annie or where she came from – another of those lines of research which will have to wait till I win the lottery – but I hope I’ve marked out a little corner of the internet for her, and possibly inspired other researchers to discover more.