Monday, January 2, 2012

The White Horse

A couple of weeks ago, I was in New York for the weekend and took a break from a walk around Central Park to visit The Frick Collection. While in the museum, my eye was caught by a Constable landscape labelled "The White Horse." The horse in question is standing in the bow of a flatboat getting underway on the left side of the canvas. One man is busy coiling up an anchor line while two men are pushing the boat away from shore using long poles. A fourth man, smoking a pipe, sits in the stern with the tiller at hand. The catalog description of the painting describes it as showing "a tow-horse being ferried across the river Stour near Dedham."

The tow-horse will eventually be pulling a narrow boat on a nearby canal. His connection to the ferry is only as a passenger. The horse stands in a well between the bow and a low raised deck area that runs almost the length of the boat. Three of the ferrymen are standing on this raised deck while the fourth appears to be sitting on the side of a similar small well at the stern end. It is difficult to see how this vessel could carry much in the way of cargo except on calm days when passengers and baggage could rest securely on the elevated deck. Only the use of planking to cover the recessed space would allow the boat to carry any kind of wheeled vehicle.

What is certain, however, is that there is no cable, no provision for sails, and no arrangement for rowing. Is the river shallow enough at this point to pole the boat across? Does it drift with the current, steered by the tiller? That would seem to make crossings "on demand" unlikely and complicate the shuttle design of having a matched pair of ferry landings. Short of a time machine, an account by a very observant and obsessively detailed traveller, a manual for ferry operators, or some other contemporary description, the details remain unclear.

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