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Today we feature an obscure color which used to be well known and frequently written about.  Isabelline, also known as “isabella,” is a pale, silvery yellowish-gray.  The name for the color is older than most color names in English and dates back to the Elizabethan era (circa 1600).  There are several compelling (but non-definitive) explanations of the etymology of the word.  My favorite explanation is that Infanta Isabella, a Spanish noblewoman vowed never to change her snow white garb until her husband,  Archduke Albert of Austria, was victorious in conquering Ostend, a Protestant stronghold in Flanders.  A hasty victory was expected, however, the city’s Dutch defenders were reinforced and supplied from the sea by the English and the siege lasted for three brutal years, by which time the Infanta’s gown was a very organic yellow-gray.  The story is probably apocryphal but it is nearly old as the color itself (and it draws our attention to the Siege of Ostend, which was as brutal and bloody as it was historically interesting).

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This Spanish connection of the name hints at why the English of the early 17th century were so excited by yellow-gray to begin with.  Isabella is a color of horses, an unparalleled fascination for people of that time! In modern horse terms, such steeds are pale palomino or cremello, but the hue isn’t too far off from ancestral grullo (these horse color names all seem to have a late medieval Spanish flair don’t they?).  At any rate, even though isabella is a common color for living things, it is perhaps not of not of paramount beauty to the jaded modern eye and the word has been gradually fading from usage.  This strikes me as a pity, since it is a much better word for that organic yellow-gray than uh, “yellow-gray.”

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Happy Chinese New Year! Last year was the reptilian year of the snake, but this year things get all mammalian again—and what a magnificent mammal! Lunar Year 4711 is the year of the horse!

Tang Dynasty Horses at the British Museum

Tang Dynasty Horses at the British Museum

Ferrebeekeeper has shied away from writing about horses because the majestic animals have played such an important role in military and economic history (also I don’t want a bunch of patricians shouting at me about the finer details of fetlocks and snaffle bits), but, since it is now the year of the horse, I would be remiss not to post some equine highlights from those 4711 years of Chinese culture. Horses were (probably) domesticated in next door Kazakhstan about five thousand years ago, and they have had an unparalleled position in Chinese culture.  Not only is Chinese mythology replete with horses, throughout the entire history of the Han people, the great perissodactyls have been pivotal as labor, military mounts, transportation, pets, status symbols, and food.

A Cermaic Horse from the Tang dynasty (618 AD-907 AD)

A Cermaic Horse from the Tang dynasty (618 AD-907 AD)

There are numerous artistic masterpieces which celebrate this long alliance of man and mount. From ancient Zhou bronzeware vessels, to terracotta tombware from the Han dynasty, to deft Sung dynasty brush paintings, to elaborate Quing jade carvings. However I have chosen to celebrate the year of the horse with a gallery of earthenware porcelain statues from the far-flung Tang Empire (which stretched farthest towards what is now Kazakhstan, the original home of domesticated horses).  The Tang was an overland dynasty which looked west along the Silk Road for trade ties, artistic inspiration, and conquest.  It was an era of cavalry patrols, mounted merchants, and riders of all sorts.

Tang dynasty Ceramic Horse

Tang dynasty Ceramic Horse

Tang Horse

Tang Horse

The Tang dynasty was also an era when porcelain glazes grew in color, depth, and complexity—yet the calligraphic exactitude of Ming glazes was still unknown.  These sculptures each seem like a perfect depiction of a proud horse simultaneously coupled with an abstract painting of brown, yellow, orange, and green.  What could be a better metaphor for a new year?

A contemporary knock-off of a Tang Horse

A contemporary knock-off of a Tang Horse

Hopefully you will enjoy these images as you go about your New Year’s celebrations! Start a cultural dialogue with the local constabulary by lighting off some red fireworks! Enjoy “Buddha’s Delight” (a traditional New Year’s Dish made of black algae). Pack some decorative red envelopes full of cash and give them to your loved ones (or your favorite eclectic blogger!).  But as you go about your new year celebrations keep the horse in mind (and spare a few moments of thought for the matchless artisans of the Tang Dynasty as well).

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Grey Dun Icelandic Horse (Paula Jantunen)

Grey Dun Icelandic Horse (Paula Jantunen)

Because of humankind’s long close association with horses, horse coloration has a very specific and complex vocabulary (as any fan of wild west literature could attest).  One of the most interesting horse colors is grullo a dun color characterized by gray body hair.  Grullo gray can be either tan gray or mouse colored.

A grullo horse

A grullo horse

Grullo horses have bodies which are lighter in hue than their tails and manes.  They also often have primitive markings such as stripes, spots, and stipples.  Some grullo horses even have striped legs as though they were zebras or quaggas.

Cave painting of a grullo wild horse from Lascaux, France (ca 15,000-10,000 BC)

Cave painting of a grullo wild horse from Lascaux, France (ca 15,000-10,000 BC)

Grullo is of interest as an ancestral coloration of wild horses.  The tarpan (Equus ferus ferus), an extinct subspecies of wild horse from Eurasia was believed to have grullo coloring. The last tarpan died in captivity in Russia in 1909, but mad attempts to recreate it through selective breeding have resulted in the primitive looking Heck horse (a breed of horse which tend to be grullo).  Additionally many small harry northern horses like Norwegian Fjord horses and Welsh ponies tend to be grullo.  Look at how cute they are!

A Heck Horse

A Heck Horse

 

 

 

Landing horses from Australia (attributed to J. B. East ca.1834,
Watercolor on paper)

Horses are first known to have arrived in Australia in 1788.  They came as part of an invasion fleet—the “first fleet,” which consisted of eleven British ships filled with marines, soldiers, “free” (but penniless) crown subjects, male and female convicts, horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice, bedbugs, fleas, smallpox, and a handful of King George’s officers.  Some of these various life-forms quickly escaped the hungry sweltering colony on Sydney Cove and began to alter the island continent. The first rogue horses were seen around Sydney in 1804.  In subsequent years other colonists and business concerns brought yet more horses.  Australians imported “Capers”, robust horses from South Africa.  In the North, tiny Timor Ponies (renowned for toughness and the ability to thrive in the tropics) were purchased from Indonesia. Miners brought in hard-headed ponies from Cornwall, Wales, and Dartmoor. Wealthy squatters (land barons) brought in thoroughbreds and Arabians.  Farmers brought Clydesdales and Percherons. Most of these horses ended up pulling wagons, ploughing fields, or carrying rich men on their backs—they were domestic horses doing human bidding–but a few lit out for freedom in forests and deserts which had never before known the hoof.

The result of the mixture was the “brumby”, the wild horse of Australia. In a continent where the largest native grazer was the stolid wombat, horses quickly began to thrive. In a few generations, feral horses completely adapted to the harsh arid climate of Australia. Huge herds roam the wasteland (particularly in the Australian Alps).

The Distribution of the Feral Horse in Australia According to the Department of Conservation

Thanks to natural selection, brumbies quickly reverted to the appearance of wild ancestral horses.  Iliveforhorses.com describes the brumby with no particular enthusiasm:

The Brumby varies in conformation but generally has a heavy head with a short neck and back, straight shoulders, sloping quarters, and strong legs. Their shape is generally poor although the occasional one has a through back to Thoroughbred ancestry and will have some quality, especially in the head region. They can be any color and their height varies but they tend to be small.

The same website is equally censorious about brumby temperament, noting that brumbies, “are, like any feral animal, extremely difficult to capture and tame, and have rebellious and willful natures.”

Brumbies might have poor shapes and willful natures, but they have proven excellent at surviving in the wild. During the 19th century, horses were in such demand that round-ups occurred and wild brumbies were “broken” back into domestication, but as mechanization increased during the 20th century, huge herds of brumbies ran roughshod over the Australian ecosystem.  Environmentalists, farmers, and politicians implemented the same solution to this problem which they had first used for the rabbit infestation—the gun.  Huge numbers of brumbies were shot for meat and hide (apparently there is still a thriving horsemeat market in Europe).  Others were simply left for dead, whether cleanly killed or not.  Animal lovers reacted with outrage to the slaughter and have demanded more humane solutions to the brumby problem (such as round-ups or mass sterilization).  Implementing these solutions has, however, proven costly (and not entirely efficacious) so the fate of great herds of brumbies has become a political wrestling match between environmentalists on one side and animal lovers on the other.  Whether herds are larger or smaller, there is no way to eradicate them entirely.  Horses have joined kangaroos, echidnas, koalas, platypuses, numbats, and crocodiles as one of the characteristic natives of Australia.

Brumbies in a eucalyptus forest

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