Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Rocking Horse Man

The horse that came home again.
Years ago, when our son was born, my professional yacht skipper husband, Alan Lees, decided that he no longer wanted to be away from home for months on end. He didn't want to miss Charlie's baby years - all those milestones. Alan's last long trip was to the Canaries to skipper a charter yacht for the winter. The baby was six weeks old when we borrowed a small apartment in Los Cristianos on Tenerife. (It was a quieter place back then - not quite the extension of Las Americas it has since become.) I flew down with the baby in January and spent several months living there - blissfully - with Alan joining us whenever he could. My parents came for a couple of weeks and later on my mother-in-law joined us for another fortnight. I remember it as one of the happiest times of my life: warm and sunny, with a gorgeous and thriving new baby in a country where children were always welcome.

When we returned to Scotland - although Alan carried on working as a professional sailor from time to time, he was also looking for a way of working which would allow him to spend more time at home. He had always been artistic and creative, always been good with his hands and as a sailor he had undertaken a certain amount of shipwrighting work when and where necessary. So he became a woodcarver. Sometimes the two professions joined together in wholly unexpected ways as when this large carved monkey (left) was transported to Largs, for installation at Kelburn Country Park - by water!
I don't know where the idea of rocking horses came from, but I do remember his first attempt which was a rather basic outdoor horse that our son played with until it fell apart. After that, came a carved and painted pony, still going strong all these years later. It's a vintage item now and lives at the house of some friends where it was ridden by their four daughters and assorted visiting kids, our own son included, over many years.

Soon though, Alan was making the most wonderful carved sculptural horses: a string of them in oak and ash,  gessoed or polished wood, all with starry names: Rigel, Alpharatz, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Orion, Sirius... we lost track of where they went, although Zuben'ubi, a huge and wonderful creature on bowed rockers, stayed at home and lives with us still.
Mostly they were commissioned by grandmothers, ostensibly 'for the grandchildren' - but people would quietly admit that they themselves had 'always wanted one.'
We didn't make any fortunes.
Horses are hard, heavy, time consuming and expensive to make and whatever Alan was paid was never enough to give him a decent hourly rate - but that's the nature of the arts and crafts sector.
People did, however, start to call him 'The Rocking Horse Man.'

Just how sad can an old horse get?

Advanced surgery

After a while, he began to be asked to restore old horses so - having researched the whole subject - he added this work to his portfolio. We're not really talking conservation here, since most of the time, there was little to conserve. These poor beasts were battered beyond recognition: worm eaten, tattered and torn, falling to bits, sometimes badly restored by well meaning individuals, covered in thick gloss paint and with plaited wool or rope manes and tails. One actually arrived as a bundle of sticks in a box. Often, they had lost a jaw. Another had been burned on a bonfire by the 'nice' people to whom it had been lent by its previous owner, and had been rescued only just short of total dissolution. That one - restored to its former glory as a surprise gift for a retired owner - provoked tears of joy, and almost made us cry as well!


A brand new horse, leaving in a horse box!
Now, two of these restored horses have come back to us. On both occasions, I saw them in a saleroom with a jolt of surprised recognition. One is small, one is very large, and both are Ayres horses: the Rolls Royce of rocking horses. The large one has a rare and unusual side saddle, and probably dates from the late Victorian or early Edwardian period. The smaller of the two is a bit newer - probably 1930s or 40s. Both of them were restored with a great deal of loving care. It's kind of sad to see them on the market again - but perhaps people simply didn't have the space. We're in the process of rehoming them - you can find them listed in our eBay shop, The Scottish Home.
Alan carved other items, of course, not just horses. He spent many years working on massive outdoor sculptures of all kinds. Sadly, crippling arthritis finally caught up with him and he can barely walk these days, let alone carve. Instead, he paints in acrylics - bright pictures, full of life and movement and human figures- indulging a love of colour which sculpture seldom permitted - except where these lovely cheerful rocking horses were concerned.

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