History at a gallop at The Jockey Club Rooms

Chantal Haddon starts our look at Suffolk venues by discovering a fabulous art collection – and portraits of history's most famous racehorses – at Newmarket's Jockey Club Rooms

Chantal Haddon starts our look at Suffolk venues by discovering a fabulous art collection – and portraits of history’s most famous racehorses – at Newmarket’s Jockey Club Rooms

Set back along Newmarket’s High street is a building which is the country seat of Britain’s most influential racing body. The restrained 1930s facade of the Jockey Club’s eponymous ‘Jockey Club Rooms’, conceals a 250-year history which is closely interwined with Britain’s powerful political aristocracy.  Her Majesty the Queen is the Jockey Club’s patron and it can count amongst its current and former members prime ministers, members of the aristocracy and some of Britain’s wealthiest and most influential men and women, including Winston Churchill, King Edward VII, HRH Charles Prince of Wales, the Duke of Devonshire and the multi-millionairess race horse owner, Kirsten Rausing.  The Jockey Club Rooms house not only one of the most pre-eminent collections of equestrian art with paintings by Stubbs, Sartorious, Herring and Sir Alfred Munnings but a fascinating racing archive dating back to the very beginnings of British racing.  For the first time in its long history the Jockey Club Estate has taken the unprecedented step of inviting the wider public to view this extraordinary collection with a series of monthly traditional afternoon teas and tours, beginning on Sunday, Feburary 27.  Outside the sacrosanct race meets and thoroughbred sales, there is also a new opportunity to stay in the gloriously refurbished Victorian ‘chambers’ – in the past the preserve of members only. The bedrooms are carefully designed to retain the flavour of a grand country house, a ‘home from home’, with many of the bathrooms matching the generous proportions of the bedrooms. As you arrive, the only outward hint of the Jockey Club Rooms’ connection to the world of horseracing is John Skeaping’s life-sized bronze of the diminutive Derby winner, Hyperion, which stands foursquare outside.  You pass through a set of electronic gates on to a gravel drive which is raked daily with the precision reminiscent of Japanese Zen gardens. Just beyond the walled garden is a training yard where future champions walk out each morning. The main exterior of the building was designed by Sir Albert Richardson in the 1930s but there are earlier Victorian and Edwardian additions; one part exclusively designed as an adjunct for Edward VII’s valet, although Alan Medlock, the steward of the rooms for the last 10 years, suspects that with its discreet entrance, the main function may have been to facilitate Edward’s covert love affairs.  The real architectural gem is the original 18th century coffee house, known as the Coffee Room, which survived a voracious fire that started just as Richardson’s renovations in 1933 had been completed. Luckily the flames didn’t reach the Coffee Room, which has remained largely unchanged since it was first established. Set around an enclosed quadrangle, with a series of arched niches or stalls and furnished with simple leather benches, the Coffee Room represents the starting point of the Jockey Club Rooms. 

The collection boasts a number of other memorials to Eclipse, which include a rather macabre silver gilt snuff box made from the horse’s hoof and presented to the club by William IV.

Established in the mid 18th century as an informal meeting place for the movers and shakers of the racing world, it also represents the beginning of the formal role of the Jockey Club as the regulator of British racing.  It doesn’t take much to imagine the huddled figures of the great, good and notorious gambling, gossiping and plotting within. Each of the stalls is now decorated with some witty cut-outs of much later society figures by the famous Maxims caricaturist, George Goursat (1863-1934 and also known as ‘SEM’), and it comes as no surprise that the hedonistic Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) re-appears in this hall of fame and infamy. The appropriately named The Whip, in pride of place above the Coffee Room fireplace is one of the Jockey Club’s more idiosyncratic trophies.  David Oldrey is the former Deputy Senior Steward of The Jockey Club. A racehorse owner in his own right he won The Whip challenge trophy in 2005 with his horse Vamp, and he explained how The Whip’s provenance connects it directly to King Charles II, a passionate horseracing enthusiast and jockey, and the monarch, who more than any other, made Newmarket the HQ of British racing and the temporary home of affairs of state. The Whip is decorated with the King’s mistress Barbara Villier’s coat of arms, and has a later connection to one of the greatest racehorses in Bristish history. The Whip’s lash and plaited hair handle reputedly orginate from the stallion Eclipse, who was unchallenged during his 18th century racing career and has numerous winning thoroughbreds descended directly from him, including Desert Orchid.The collection boasts a number of other memorials to Eclipse, which include a rather macabre silver gilt snuff box made from the horse’s hoof and presented to the club by William IV. The most impressive salute to this incredible champion is a painting by George Stubbs (1724-1806), which hangs in the Morning Room, and was orginally owned by British prime minister, the 5th Earl of Rosebery. Another painting by Stubbs in the same room is, in David Oldrey’s expert view, probably the finest painting in the entire collection. Stubb’s portrayal of the famous 18th century racehorse Gimrack was commissioned by the 1st Earl Grosvenor, who owned nearby Hare Park. Grosvenor, an ancestor of the current Duke of Westminster, recklessly ran through his family’s fortune in pursuit of racing success and died with assets of just over �70,000 and debts in excess of �100,000 (amounting to more than �7 million in today’s money).Every inch of wall space is decorated with photographs and paintings of the club’s many illustrious members and countless great horses but modestly displayed along one corridor is a group of paintings by one of East Anglia’s most famous 20th century artists – Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959). Munnings was an incredibly accomplished equestrian artist but one picture in the collection has rather surprising origins. In the 1930s Mr Dewar, a racehorse owner, bid a 1000 guineas for a blank canvas which had been offered by Munnings in a charity auction, to be painted with the horse of the winner’s choosing. When Munnings went to paint Mr Dewar’s horse, Cameronian, he had not considered the implacable trainer, Fred Darling, who refused point-blank to move the horse outside of the stables because it was being prepared for the St Leger. The great artist was forced to depict the stallion in the shady quarters of his stalls.The Jockey Club Rooms Tea Tours provide a privileged insight into a great British institution. Its elegant interiors, long history and superb collection tell a fascinating story of human endeavour and frailty, our pursuit of excellence, wealth and power and the intoxicating attractions of racing.

Photos courtesy of Christie’s Photographers, Lightworks Photography, A Little Box of Memories

Most Read

Comments powered by Disqus