At this late date I can’t recall what first prompted my interest in carousel horses during the late 1980s. As a child my only experience with carousels was one located in a small amusement park called “Jolly Roger” by most locals although its official name was Nunley’s. Outdoors there was a small Ferris wheel and a roller coaster that I never got up the nerve to ride on despite its compact size. Indoors was a bumper car arena, a mini boat ride, a plethora of pinball machines, skee-ball (my favorite game) and, in the center, a 50-horse carousel originally carved in the early 1900s by Dentzel.
It may have been the cover art that prompted me to impulsively check out Painted Ponies from my local library but it was Geoff Weedon’s book Fairground Art that really got me hooked. After that, whenever we planned a vacation I’d prep by scouting out any antique or vintage carousels within a reasonable – and sometimes not so reasonable – distance.
In 1991 the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, Connecticut embarked on a major renovation and expansion of their facility. In connection with this they held an auction of all the carousel horses that they decided not to retain in their holdings. Naturally I went, hoping to snag something like I’d seen in my books. It was the classic scenario of having champagne tastes on a beer (soft drink, really) budget and the pre-sale estimate sheet brought me back to reality. My acquisition, if any, would need to be a restoration project.
My eye fell on a small horse near the end of the display lineup. The fact that his “romance” (more ornate) side was his left rather than right showed he was from England: UK carousels rotate in the opposite direction (clockwise) from American and European ones. [This is not surprising in view of the fact that they also drive on the “wrong” side of the road 😊 ] We were able to get him for an acceptable hammer price although it also meant that he’d be our only purchase of the day. My seven-year-old son and I put our heads together and decided to name him Prince.
So what was Prince’s likely history? We already know he was carved for an English carousel (roundabout), and his style (‘galloper’, a/k/a ‘jumper’) combined with his exactly parallel legs suggest that he was part of a travelling carousel; that style is the easiest to move and pack for transport from fairground to fairground. His physical dimensions — 40” (101 cm) high from ear tip to hoof bottom, 55” (140 cm) long from front to back hooves, and roughly 11” (28 cm) wide with a 9” x 14” seating area – tell us that his carousel was the standard/full size, because child-only carousel horses (called “dobbies”) are about one-third smaller overall.
Fairground horses were painted in bright primary colors and normally didn’t have an abundance of intricate surface carving; such areas would only complicate the regular repainting that the constantly-handled animals found themselves in need of. Animals destined for permanent-site carousels in parks were much more elaborate. However, even a fairground horse’s bridle carving often included a buckle or flower, and the addition of a name on a carved or painted ribbon was common.
I regret that although I took numerous photos of Prince during his restoration process, the combination of house moves and family changes resulting in my now having only a few of them. The process itself took close to two years because it was almost all DIY.
Prince’s condition presented many challenges. His basswood body was devoid of almost all his original paint except for traces on his legs, hoofs, head and cast-iron ears. An awkwardly shaped wooden tail had been stuck into his, er, nether region at some point and in my opinion looked ridiculous. But his original glass eyes were intact and the wood appeared sound. We’d later discover that the interior harbored more than a little bit of dry rot. This photo shows his ‘off’ (inward facing, non-romance, less ornate) side.
Early on I had a discussion with my best friend Carole about how to ‘finish’ Prince and after seeing him in person she said that in her view he would be more interesting if his exterior were to be left just as he was. (The interior dry rot areas obviously needed to be addressed.) I immediately rejected this notion because I had a mental picture of turning Prince into a pastel-fantasy-fairytale steed. In hindsight, knowing now the extent of restoration that he needed, I think she may have been right.
The dry rot, of course, was taken care of first. As for the outside, my then-husband, thanks to a friend, had already discovered the ‘wonders’ of Bondo which is a polyester resin filler much loved by auto body repairers. It can also be sculpted and painted, and was touted by his friend as being the perfect solution. Of course that effectively eliminated any idea of Prince retaining his natural wood finish because Bondo is a bright white paste. At that time I had no idea that it is not an acceptable replacement for wood filler because unlike wood, Bondo cures to a rigid material that does not expand or contract like wood does. This makes it great for repairing metal and fiberglas but not optimal for adding to an item made of wood.
One of our first “discussions” concerned Prince’s tail. That silly wood one was removed forthwith, but although I thought he looked fine without it, I was talked into ordering a real horsehair replacement in a “palomino” color and supposedly it would be the correct length and width for Prince’s dimensions… but it still didn’t look right to me and was eventually discarded.
By the time all the holes, cracks, imperfections and whatnots had been addressed with what was surely pounds of Bondo, Prince looked like an anemic pinto and was clearly in need of a primer coat or three. For that, the helpful friend knew someone with an auto body shop willing to make some extra money after hours, so off he went and returned in pure white glistening satin-gloss glory awaiting the next phase of his transformation.
In his original photo you can see the seam gaps between the body sections as well as traces of the original red paint inside his nostrils, around his eyes, and in his mouth. The second photo (sorry, this is as sharp as I could tweak it) shows some of the Bondo patching and repairs, and finally the finish.
The inside of the metal ears were painted red as well.
Unfortunately I have no extant photo of the romance side in its original or patched state, which is a shame. There is, however, this one photo taken before I later removed the horsehair tail. It bothered me because it looks so out of proportion to the size of the horse: If it were possible to straighten Prince’s legs to a standing position it’s clear that the end of that tail would have been dragging on the ground like a duchess’s court train! Worse yet, even in this poorly lit photo Prince’s pure white ‘coat’ made the blonde tail look positively dingy.
The shiny brass pole seen in the previous photo has oxidized over the ensuing 25 years to an antique/bronzy surface. The oval base (not seen here) is natural walnut and the pole is topped with a removable ball finial.
A better view of the romance side’s detail. (The darker lines on the ribbon are shadows caused by the deeper detail cuts.)
Prince’s name would normally be painted on the upper part of the ribbon carving.
After Prince attained this state the “discussions” turned into an impasse. I had a mental picture of how I wanted Prince to look but didn’t for a minute consider trying to paint him myself – I know my limitations, and when it comes to drawing or painting they are very big ones indeed. Thus we needed to find an airbrush artist whose work I liked 1001% before entrusting Prince’s ultimate appearance to him or her. The problem was that although there were plenty of people making a living doing custom airbrush art on cars, trucks, motorcycles and boats there wasn’t one who had ever done anything on an almost centenarian carousel horse. What was worse, all their portfolio work was far too ‘commercial’ looking. When I inquired of some professional carousel horse restorers, as soon as they heard what materials had been used in the restoration (Bondo, fiberglas, automotive primer and paints) they instantly demurred. And so, me being unwilling to risk ending up with anything less than what I originally envisioned, Prince remained almost naked…. in carousel-horse-appearance terms.
In 2001 we moved to a different house and I chose to decorate one room in a lovely pale blue and white. Prince, of course, fit right into that décor… far better, I instantly realized, than my original pastel-fairytale vision would have done. He also looked quite fetching when I wrapped the brass pole with soft red-and-green garland during the holiday season and placed poinsettia pots or wrapped gifts beneath him. When I moved to the Money Pit I duplicated the blue/white color scheme and so Prince is one of the focal points of that room today. A far cry from his former life on the fairground circuit a hundred years ago!
The question of who actually created Prince remains a mystery. Of the three major British carousel horse carvers of the early 1900s (Anderson, Savage, and Spooner) in size and style he most resembles the horses carved by Frederick Savage of King’s Lynn or J.R. Anderson of Bristol. It’s also quite possible that Prince was carved by a lesser known shop who, being familiar with the work of the “big three”, created their horses based on those popular styles.
Anderson horses, however, are typically either more ornate or noticeably plainer than Prince. Both of these have been professionally restored.
This Savage galloper, stripped to its original paint, has a noticeable resemblance to Prince and is an exact match for him in all physical dimensions. Although this one is far plainer in decoration, it may well be that he was intended as one of the inside-row horses whereas Prince was destined for the outside row. Or this one may have been made for a simpler carousel overall.
The horses at the restored Savage carousel at Great Adventure in New Jersey, on the other hand, have very little in common with Prince.
Speaking of carousel horse restorations, some studios produce fiberglas reproductions of antique pieces via mold castings; some of these can approach or match the cost of a restored (but simpler) original animal.
Compare this fiberglas reproduction of a 1917 Muller armored stander for $4495 with….
..this professionally restored circa 1900 Dentzel mare for $4950. Given the choice, within the same $4000-$5000 price range I’d much rather have the real thing than a synthetic modern replica.
There are also modern carousel horse figures that are made of wood. These will not be exact copies of an actual antique horse but may be described as being in the “style” of a particular carver. This excellent post on the Real or Repro site illustrates the difference between the antique carousel horses and the output of these modern companies. Of particular interest is the difference between the body construction method and the type of woods used.
A quick google of some of the more famous carousel horse carver names (Dentzel, Herschell Spillman, Looff, Carmel, Ilions, Anderson, Savage, Spooner, C. W. Parker, and Stein & Goldstein) will bring up enough images to keep you busy for hours. Perhaps you may not start looking up possible carousel visits for day trips anytime soon, or muse about adopting an antique orphan horse in need of some TLC and a plush retirement — but you have been warned! 😊