From Arabia to Royal Ascot: Only jewels and horses

An exhibition showcasing 5,000 years of equine history at the British Museum offers a fascinating narrative and some genuine masterpieces

While the Indians and South-east Asia might regard the elephant as the noblest of beasts, for most of the rest of the world it is the horse that has captured the dreams of the rider and the imagination of the artist. There's something about the long limbs, the rearing head, the fine-boned face and the big eyes that leads artists to portray this animal of all animals in the most realistic detail.

Right from the start, in the first cave drawings (a fine engraving on bone from 10,500BC was found in Creswell Crags in Derbyshire), through the Assyrians, Greeks, Ottomans and the paintings of George Stubbs, the equine form and features are presented with great delicacy and precision. No other animal, let alone man, is given this homage of exactitude.

Which makes the horse, of course, a natural subject for an exhibition in a major gallery of art and archaeology such as the British Museum. Taken mostly from the museum's own holdings, free of charge and with a month still to run, the show is a delight from the beginnings in Sumer to the final video of the dressage in the Olympics.

Such are the exigencies of our times and the obligations of sponsorship from Saudi Arabia that it has been limited in scope to the Arabian horse and to the Middle East.

That is a pity. For the horse has taken the form of many breeds and many places, and still does. There is scope surely – even from the museum's own reserves – to take in the Indian in America and the samurai in Japan and to show side by side the marvellous sculptural heads of ancient Greece and the tomb terracottas of Han China from virtually the same period (they're incredibly alike) and to demonstrate just how crucial the horse was to the Aryan conquest of the Subcontinent and the Mongol devastation of half the known world.

Still, even within a more restricted remit, the exhibition produces a full narrative and a host of miniature masterpieces. It was in the Middle East that the horse is first pictured as the animal for battle and for the hunt. And it is from the Arab stallions that the British have taken their racing horses. If the Gulf has returned to buy up most of the sport and to patronise displays such as this, it could be said that it was a just reclamation of inheritance.

The horse was introduced to the Middle East from Central Asia (probably Kazakhstan where they had been domesticated since at least 3500BC) in around 2000BC and soon caught on as a chariot animal, revolutionising the speed and the battle tactics of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The first exhibit is the so-called Standard of Ur, a decorated box in shell and lapis lazuli from Sumer in around 2600BC. It shows the chariots still pulled by asses. A millennium later, a clay tablet from Babylon from 1779BC has a chariot pulled this time by horses while a splendid little Babylonian plaque mould from around the same period shows a man astride a horse, albeit seated well back as if he was on a donkey.

From then on the horse makes a regular appearance as an image, in its harnesses and in fresco and sculpture. The British Museum's Assyrian bas-reliefs are one of the great treasures of the world and the examples here of yoked horses straining at the reins in the hunt and in battle are just stupefying. The image of the leaping horse has become a standby of art and decoration since, but in the expression of speed and majesty these works have never been bettered. The ancient artists seem unable to picture the horse without giving it life and personality. It is there in the brilliant little model chariot from the Oxus treasure in the fourth and fifth centuries, the vase paintings of Attic Greece and the Egyptian wall paintings as much as in the glazed pottery of the Islamic Middle East and its brass bowls. A charming Mameluke glass pilgrim flask from the middle wages has, what appears from the dress, to be Christian Crusaders hunting wild animals with spear and crossbow, the grey and white horses intent on the action. A Mughal miniature shows in fine detail men shoeing a horse while a Rembrandt drawing copies an Indian miniature of Shah Jahan riding, the horse looking sideways at you as it gallops. Most striking of all is a Safavid ink and watercolour depiction of three galloping and riderless horses. Set that against the three galloping horses on the fragment of Assyrian wall relief of a lion hunt earlier in the show over two thousand years before and you can see the extraordinary continuity of the representation of the horse in art.

Once you turn the corner into Britain's long love affair with the Arab horse as a racer and you are into the connected world of the English aristocracy and the Middle East. The Thoroughbred breed in Britain traces its ancestry entirely to three Arab sires, one of whom was captured from the Turks and the other two imported from Syria and France. It's a serious business, the lineage kept in stud books and the lines kept pure. And if that seems arcane, if not a little prissy, to the non race-goer, the British obsession with breeding winners produced an entire genre of art and, of course, the works of George Stubbs, who spent some 18 months dissecting carcases to get their physiognomy correct.

One could have done with more of Stubbs's masterpieces than the single one on display and something of the way that horses from ancient times and more especially in Renaissance art were used to express the fury and carnage of battle. Concentrating on the Arab horse misses the story even within the Middle East of how it was the lightly armed archers on quick smaller horses – the Parthians and the Mongols – who constantly outmanoeuvred the heavier horses of empires they conquered. But then that would have made a bigger exhibition for which one would have had to pay. The BM's show and its accompanying catalogue are more than enough to keep one interested.

The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot, British Museum, London WC1 (020 7323 8181; britishmuseum.org) to 30 September

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