It’s hard to put Rembrant’s portraits in the shade, but I’m afraid Goya more than gives him a run for his money. In fact I’d go so far as to say he totally eclipses him.
In the usual packed blockbuster at the National Portrait Gallery, I stood behind a group of, shall we say, mature friends, discussing the particular position of Maria Teresa de Vallabriga y Rojas on her horse. The more forthright (Lady F) of them commented “But if she’s really riding side saddle – which she would be – her legs are twisted in far too exaggerated a fashion!”
I looked at the portrait and tried to figure it out. Meanwhile the debate raged on. I couldn’t help it, I had to interject. I explained to the trio that I felt Goya had done it deliberately. That his main focus was on getting her face in profile, therefore he had to have her twist her legs around far more prominently so that we got the full picture so to speak. “After all, he’s an artist” I said, “He’s entitled to be economical with the truth.”
Her friends moved on as Lady F answered me. “Let me tell you, I ride side saddle and it doesn’t look remotely like that.”
This was a rare find and I didn’t hesitate to quiz her more specifically on the ups and downs as it were of such a riding technique.
“Of course you can’t trot when you ride like this, you have to go from a walk to a canter. Although there is this thing you can pull down on to one side of the saddle, then you can do what’s called a ‘slow trot’. You can also use it for a canter – I believe they do that in Argentina.”
The crowds milled and crushed about us but we were locked in to our conversation.
Lady F met my gaze candidly.
“Have you always ridden side saddle?” I asked.
“Oh no! Only since last year. My children wanted to get me something for my birthday – I’ve got enough stuff in my life already so I asked for lessons. I learnt at Audley End in Essex.”
“Gosh, were there many people doing it with you?”
She looked at me quizzically. “Just two at a time” she said haughtily. “We started off in the morning in jodhpurs and then in the afternoon we wore all the proper paraphernalia and had lots of photographs taken. Henry, my horse, absolutely loved it, he’s such a poser!”
I glanced from her to Maria Teresa de Vallabriga y Rojas. Both had a similar look; direct, formidable, curious – and Goya had captured its very essence.
Last chance: Goya closes 10 Jan at National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London