One of the nicest things about living in the United Kingdom is that no matter where you are there is always a pub nearby. Unless they are themed they are usually pretty similar whether you are in Rotherham or Rotherhithe or Newbury or Newmarket.
Even the smallest hamlet seems to have a pub and although the newspapers carry stories of these establishments closing down, you nearly always find one open usually serving the local ales and beers of the county as well as all nature of other refreshments.
During the summer on a very hot July day, I visited a pub not far from the shimmering Marlborough Downs. My wife and I were in need of refreshment and although not partaking of alcohol were happily rested in the beer garden with our soft drinks. It was one of those days when the sun was so high that it created a brilliance that one would expect to see in Venice or maybe St Ives. All the colours of the garden were in sharp profile. But as I admired our surroundings I looked through the window of the bar where a celestial light appeared to be emerging. Sadly it was not anything other worldly but the horse brasses around the fireplace reflecting the light from the bonnet of a car parked outside.
As we had been out in the sun for a considerable period, my wife and I decided to take a break in the deserted bar. The air was much cooler and the low ceiling helped to create a comfortable draft. It was then that I realised the actual number of horse brasses that decorated the bar. Apart from the celestial ones there were brasses hung in every conceivable space. I did not count them but at a guess there must have been upwards of a hundred. It was then that I began to think about them. Like swallows in the summer we expect to see them in inns and pubs around the country but treat them almost like the glasses we drink from. They are very familiar.
I do not collect horse brasses (I have one dating from Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897) but wondered at their history as whenever you enter an antiques shop or the Arcade, they are there to be found usually at quite reasonable prices.
Horse brasses are named after their origins, they are to be found quite frequently as plaques decorating the harness gear on horses. As we are all aware we see them frequently on shire horses and other heavy horses. Being a Wiltshire lad, I always thought that these brasses had originated during the nineteenth century as when very small I remember attending county shows where some of the old timers of the day told me stories of shows dating back to the 1880s. Mr (Old) Kelsey who lived to be 102, quite often used to show me grainy monochrome photographs of bygone county shows where the decoration of these horses was the subject of much competition. I was therefore quite surprised when researching the subject to find out that horse brasses actually dated back to Ancient Rome where they were known as phalerae. During the Middle Ages and before, these brasses were also to be found mainly used as talismans and maybe I would imagine as symbols of status.
Although not connected with its ancestors, the popularity of horse brasses was revived in the mid nineteenth century as the enthusiasm for the decorative arts took hold after the Great Exhibition of 1851. These brasses were often attached to a horse harness called a martingale. As the use of the heavy horse was very widespread during the final fifty years of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, the decoration of these horses was common practice. The brasses were not there to ward off evil spirits or I would imagine as status symbols but for decoration only.
The size of these brasses varied but the most popular ones were sized at three times three and a half inches although looking at photographs of the time the actual size varied. There are many photographs of horse parades at these county fairs (and the like) and I understand the RSPCA quite often presented merit awards to the outstanding decorated horses.
As with most things people started collecting horse brasses in their own right and the subjects depicted varied widely. Rather surprisingly they were very popular with academics and other professionals. But when one looks at this it is quite understandable as much of their thinking was dominated by the Romanticism of the period and the interest in medievalism. As we all know, the Gothic Revival was very popular and the interest in the humble horse brass was just part of this. But to some extent it strengthened the linage and popularity of the item to the present day.
The first horse brasses to appear were the cast brasses which were often made by smiths and other artisans. In our locality these may have reflected local landmarks or superstitions. The Hungerford Trout may have featured on some of the early cast brasses although I cannot say that I have seen one. Later in the century (c1880) stamped brasses began to appear. This is likely to have evolved from the creation of military insignia.
Stamped brasses were much lighter than cast brasses which was good news for the poor old horse and like anything that was easier to produce were cheaper which meant they were easier to collect. Unlike the cast brasses which, within reason, would have not have travelled too far, stamped brasses were soon exported to all parts of the empire.
The manufacture of stamped brasses was not based on moulds (as their cast cousins were) but via a rolled sheet of brass which by its very name was stamped. The ease of this process meant that there were many many varieties created. Most of the horse brasses we see today would have originated from that or
iginal stamping process. I was shown a cast horse brass a few years ago and my first impression was it was heavier to hold than a stamped one although the actual design was surprisingly delicate. As I have noted, horse brasses can represent almost anything. From Griffins to Cockerels, from Jamaica Inn to Jersey from Churches to Cathedrals, the list is endless.
Recently whilst in Coventry, I even found one representing the brave Lady Godiva (although she looked distinctly modern in appearance). If one can think of a subject then I would imagine that somewhere it is represented by a horse brass.
For the most part it is a cheap pastime with brasses only costing a few pounds be they modern or much older. Apart from the ceremonial ones which can easily be dated one really would have to research these items and date them. I am not an expert.
Over the last few weeks I have noted that many antique establishments a well as charity shops in this area have decent stocks of horse brasses at reasonable prices. If you are collecting horse brasses to decorate your house then like we all do, you will choose the ones that attract you but if you are a more specialised collector of horse brasses, then you will be looking for the rarer ones and will know the prices they attract.
I might pick up the odd one in future (most likely from a coronation or a jubilee) but I do not envisage collecting them en masse. If you do propose to collect horse brasses then do so as it will prove to be a most satisfying recreation and the large plus factor is that they do not take up much room and look great when displayed whether they are reflecting the soft sunlight of summer days or the harsh lights of winter.