Portrait of a thoroughbred

Ahead of the Dubai World Cup, Vision remembers the late equestrian painter John King and how he immortalised legendary Godolphin racehorse Dubai Millennium, overcoming hurdles such as special materials, scaffolding and some capricious protective packaging

Fans eagerly awaiting the return of the ancient sport of kings to Meydan Racecourse on March 26 for the glittering Dubai World Cup will long remember jockey Frankie Dettori thundering past the winning post in Godolphin’s royal blue silks in 2000. Many believe the horse he rode to victory that day was truly fulfilling its destiny.

Foaled by Seeking the Gold in 1996 and originally called Yaazer (meaning ‘White Gazelle’), he was renamed Dubai Millennium by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, so convinced was he of his potential to outrun all rivals at the Nad Al Sheba racecourse. His prophecy came true four years later as the exceptional colt won the final race of the annual event by six lengths.  

“I changed his name before he ran as a two-year-old because I knew he was a good horse,” said His Highness Sheikh Mohammed. “I was hoping he would go all the way and he has not let me down. He is the best horse I have ever seen or had anything to do with.”

Godolphin’s undisputed champion on turf and dirt was beaten just once in his 10 outings by Oath in the Vodafone Derby of 1999. A year later he was immortalised by the acclaimed late British equestrian painter John King, and Vision was fortunate enough to exclusively interview the artist before he passed away in 2014. As we approach another scintillating climax to the racing calendar, we look back to King’s thoughts on creating his “favourite” piece.

Dubai Millennium 3
Dubai Millennium was Godolphin's undisputed champion on turf and dirtImage: T Jones

“He was the fastest miler in the world at the time,” the octogenarian told Vision in 2012. “Sheikh Mohammed adored him.”

Statuesque at 16ft by 8ft and hung in the imposing entrance to the ballroom of Jumeirah’s Emirates Towers hotel in Dubai, the painting is a record-breaker just like its equestrian subject.

“Looking at him now, I’m amazed that I could do it,” said King. “It’s the biggest horse portrait painted since 1759 by John Wootten (English artist, 1682–1764) and he is virtually life-size. It’s a one-off and has not been done since, or, dare I say, not to that standard.”

Born in West Tytherley, near Salisbury in England where he lived until the age of 85, King’s mentor was family friend and celebrated British equestrian artist Lionel Edwards (1878-1966) who specialised in racing and hunting scenes.

“He was the horse painter of the time and I was literally brought up with him,” he said. Referring to his family’s passion for the creatures, he added: “I was brought up on a horse [hunting and point-to-point]. At breakfast time in our house my father used to busy himself sketching horses’ heads on the backs of envelopes.” 

It wasn’t long before King forged a career as a painter of landscapes, military, architectural and, of course, equestrian pictures. News of his talent quickly spread and commissions took him to Europe, the United States, South Africa and, 12 years ago, the Middle East.

‘I think the painting really shows Dubai Millennium’s personality. He was a well bred horse and had a very strong eye’

John King

“There were all sorts of different ways to paint Dubai Millennium and originally I had wanted him galloping or winning a race. Sheikh Mohammed and I also talked about doing it in three panels but eventually we settled upon having one big one with the horse standing still. And so, I did lots of initial sketches of Dubai Millennium at Nad al Sheba and then one big oil painting at home [in the UK] for His Highness to look at and approve.”

With the composition decided upon and the groundwork laid, it was time to put paint to canvas. However, little about the creative process was straightforward.

“My biggest concern was how to physically paint it, as it wouldn’t fit in my studio,” said King. “Then we realised we had a big barn, so we cleaned it out and put some ladders against the beams to hang it. We also put up some scaffolding and it was fine. The light was right. It was the first time a painting had been done in there and I think it will be the last!”

King commissioned a specially woven canvas from Belgium for around Dh69,000 (US$19,000) which was then stretched on to a hickory fame by Bird & Davis of London. He also bought nearly Dh6,000 (US$1,699) worth of oil paints and laboured every day for five months to complete the commission which required six weeks to dry before it could be transported to Dubai.

“When it was nearly finished, His Highness visited me,” King said. “He looked at the painting for a few minutes and then said “flare his nostrils”. So I climbed up on the scaffolding and did just that. Sheikh Mohammed studied the picture for a minute longer and said, “Yes!” And he was absolutely right; it was undoubtedly the right thing to do.” However, it was folly to presume the hard work was over: more creativity was called for in the dismounting and packing of the oil painting into its freight container.

“It was impractical to crate it as it was,” said King, “so we took the canvas off its stretcher and rolled it. We found the biggest rolling pin we could which was a drainpipe about 14 inches in diameter, and it was quite difficult to get it level and tight. We tried rolling it I don’t know how many times, with up to six people on either side – and if there was the slightest kink in it, we would have to do it again. We eventually got it  99 per cent.” 

'His Highness looked at the painting and then said “flare his nostrils”.  So I climbed up on the scaffolding and did just that. Sheikh Mohammed studied the picture for a minute longer and said “Yes!” And he was absolutely right’

John King

As an extra precaution, a thin translucent layer of glassine [air- and water-resistant paper] was laid over the picture to prevent the rolled surfaces melding. Disaster struck, however, on King’s arrival in Dubai when he and four assistants attempted to remove the protective film.

“It had stuck!” he recalled. “I nearly went through the wall! Luckily my wife had a bright idea to slosh water over it and it came off! Amazingly, it didn’t affect the oils; the water didn’t hurt the painting at all.” 

Restored to its pre-packed glory, re-mounted and finally framed, the portrait assumed pride of place on the vast concave wall that guests first see as they arrive at the five-star venue. Job complete, King returned to the UK and briefly visited the emirate five years later to oversee the varnishing of the painting by master restorers and conservators Hamish Dewar of London. 

Many consider the painting his magnum opus. “I think the painting really shows Dubai Millennium’s personality,” he mused. “He was a well bred horse and had a very strong eye.”

Dubai Millennium’s spectacular career was brought to a premature halt in August 2000 after he sustained a fracture to his right hind leg as a four-year-old while working on the Limekilns at Newmarket.

He was never to race again and retired to stud. In April the following year, the horse developed grass sickness and died that same month. He was later buried at HH Sheikh Mohammed’s Dalham Hall Stud next to his maternal grandfather Shareef Dancer. 

Whether Dubai Millennium’s descendants will ever match his track record, and merit a portrait of similar magnificence, remains to be seen.