The History of Leith

March 9, 2012

Painting of the Last Leith Races Found in Scottish Castle

A unique painting depicting a scene from The Leith Races 1804, by James Howe and valued at £15,000, is to be sold by Lyon & Turnbull on March the 14th and 15th 2012 in Edinburgh. It is one item amongst the some 1,000 lots, valued at over £500,000, being sold at one of the largest house sales in Scotland for a decade, the Blair Estate in Ayrshire. Blair is the oldest continually inhabited mansion in Scotland and the home of the Barony of Blair, where the current family can trace their ancestry back to William the Lion (1165).

Nick Curnow Paintings Specialist at Lyon & Turnbull said “’The Last of the Leith Races’ is a fine example of the features which define Howe stylistically. A master of panoramic composition, he depicts a sweep along the sands of Leith; gleefully plunging the viewer firmly into the thick of the action. By adopting a naïve, almost primitive style, Howe is able to tangibly evoke the movement and excitement of the horses charging past. Often characterised by a sense of personality and humour, his energetic painting technique was ideally suited to the depiction of this notoriously raucous event. Among the hubbub of the scene our eyes are drawn to the prize awaiting its victor on the far stand, the lame beggar requesting alms in the foreground and the high-blooded hunters champing at their bits, nostrils flared with exhilaration.”

The Leith Races were an important social event in Scotland throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, attracting thousands of visitors from as far afield as Northern England. Very different to racing in its modern form, they involved several heats back and forth along the sands at the mouth of the Water of Leith, on the east side of the harbour. Leith Race week was atmospherically described in James Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh thus: “vast lines of tents and booths, covered with canvas or blankets, stretched along the level shore; recruiting-sergeants with their drummers beating, sailors ashore for a holiday, mechanics accompanied by their wives or sweethearts, servant girls, and most motley groups, were constantly passing in and out of the drinking places; the whole varied by shows, roley-poleys, hobby horses, wheels-of fortune, and many strange characters which were once familiar in the streets of Edinburgh…Saturday, which was the last day of the races, was the most joyous and outrageous of this seashore carnival”

Eventually, a growth in the popularity of the thoroughbred led to a shift in racing methods, with speed becoming the focus over endurance. Consequently the Leith Races were moved to a new turf track in Musselburgh in 1816.

Amongst the 1,000 items in the sale are a Zeigler carpet and a fine set of twenty-six 19th century Irish dining chairs, each valued at £15-25,000; as well as many hunting and racing paintings, reflecting the sporting interests of the family down the generations. There are some fine pieces of Georgian and French furniture, a collection of rare stirrup cups and silver from the early 18th to the 19th centuries. Ends

For more information contact Philip Gregory on +44 776766840

Philip Gregory
Press Office

Lyon & Turnbull
33 Broughton Place,
Edinburgh, EH1 3RR

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