Ponies, ponies, ponies


Cecil Aldin (1870-1935) was one of the finest portrayers of the dog. He also became well known for his hunting scenes, poster illustrations and paintings of manor houses and country inns. His contribution to the world of the storybook horse was small, though significant. He illustrated one of the better Black Beauty editions and two pony books for Eleanor Helme and Nance Paul.

Aldin was a keen drawer from an early age: from the windows of his nursery in the family’s house in Kensington, he would sketch the horses he saw. He studied art at the National Art Training College, which became the Royal College of Art, and was a pupil of Frank F Calderon, who specialised in animal art (and who later taught Lionel Edwards and Lucy Kemp-Welch). Aldin’s first paid for drawing appeared in Building News. It was followed by a drawing of dogs published in The Graphic, but it was some months and considerable effort before he sold more drawings.

Aldin acquired his first horse, an elderly grey polo pony called Sweetheart, in exchange for a portrait of the owner’s son, mounted on a donkey. Aldin was married and living in Chiswick at that point, and in theory had nowhere to keep the horse. He did, however, have a bicycle shed in his garden, and this was rapidly extended for Sweetheart. Aldin would hack out from Chiswick to hunt, and after he acquired another hunter, 17hh Daddy, in another picture exchange, he started work as hunting correspondent for Land and Water Illustrated. In 1914, Aldin became MFH for the South Berks Hunt with Eric Palmer.

When the First World War broke out, Aldin, too old for active service, was made a purchasing officer, and was in charge of a Remount Depot. The Army needed an enormous amount of horses, and they were bought from all walks of life - and horses were sent out to what was often a grim fate. Aldin was responsible for at least 300 horses, but found it extremely difficult to find people to care for them: many grooms had signed up for military service, and it was difficult to find fit men with experience of horses. Aldin decided to employ women: almost unheard of at the time, and despite the War Office’s dim view of his project’s viability, set up the first all women Remount Depot.

Although Aldin did not see active service, his son Dudley did. He was killed at Vimy Ridge in 1916, aged nineteen.

Aldin had continued hunting the South Berks until 1919, but then struck off in a more unusual direction, becoming joint Master of a pack of bassets. They were, Aldin’s biographer Roy Heron said, “sedate afternoons, as the pack was hardly noted for its swiftness, and the joint Masters, Aldin and C H Carter, were themselves well into middle age.... Rarely did the bassets effect a kill, their outings generally providing nothing more than exercise for the hounds and their followers.” One of the bassets, Champion Merryman, was so heavy (and valuable) he had a specially appointed follower each hunt to heave him out of ditches.

Although Aldin only illustrated two pony books for children, he had a more lasting affect on children’s experiences with ponies. When his grandchildren complained that all the shows they went to only had a few classes for children, Aldin organised his own show, exclusively for children, on Exmoor. There were 14 classes, some of which had over 30 entrants. The show was a roaring success, and Aldin was asked to organise another. The next took place at Dunster Castle, and was an even larger affair, attracting entrants from all over England. The Dunster Show had a course designed by Captain “Chips” Russell Wood, and a Handy Hunter competition, which became the forerunner of today’s working hunter classes.

Cecil Aldin had a long-standing affection for Exmoor, which became the object of his work during the latter part of his life, falling in love with it after being invited to hunt with the Devon and Somerset Staghounds. He took his grandchildren, Tony and Ann, riding on Exmoor, and wrote a book of hunting advice aimed at the young entry. The two pony books he illustrated, Eleanor Helme and Nance Paul’s Jerry and The Joker and Jerry, were both set on Exmoor. They do not have the magic of his Black Beauty, which was an altogether more sumptuous production, with colour plates. Although not his best work, both Jerry books are charming. The strongest portraits are of the dogs, of which Aldin was a supreme portrayer . His dogs were absolutely themselves; the most doggy of dogs.

Towards the end of his life, Aldin suffered acutely from arthritis, and his work rate slowed down. Many of his books used drawings he already had, although he continued to produce original work right to the end of his life. He was recommended by his doctor to try living in a warmer climate, and so he and his wife moved to Majorca with their five dogs - Aldin’s “professional” models. Aldin returned to England, intent on completing his book on Exmoor as a riding destination, but on the way back, had a massive heart attack, and when the ship docked in England, he was taken to the London Clinic. There he died six weeks later, having spent his last days sketching. His death was marked in all the papers of the time, as was, two years later, the death of perhaps his most famous canine model, Cracker, his bull terrier.

Finding the books: first editions of the Jerry books with dustjackets can be pricey. Both books were reprinted many times; The Joker and Jerry with a different, non-Aldin dustjacket but with the Aldin illustrations internally. The reprints, and books without dustjackets, are very easy to find. First editions and early copies of the dog books will generally be very expensive. Aldin’s autobiography Time I Was Dead is scarce and expensive. The earliest editions of Aldin’s Black Beauty are now expensive; reprints with fewer prints are available cheaply. Some of Aldin’s dog titles are still in print.

Links and sources

Roy Heron - Cecil Aldin: The Story of a Sporting Artist (Webb & Bower 1981)

An article on Cecil Aldin, concentrating on his dog pictures.

Vulpes Libris’ excellent blog post on Cecil Aldin

Stella & Rose’s article on Cecil Aldin

A picture of the artist

A bibilography

Cecil Aldin: Time I Was Dead - Pages from my Autobiography, 1934

Cecil Aldin

Equine non fiction written by Cecil Aldin

Ratcatcher to Scarlet


Scarlet to MFH

Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1933

Exmoor - the Riding Playground of England

H F & G Witherby, 1935

Hunting Scenes


Equine Titles illustrated by Cecil Aldin

R S Surtees: Jorrocks on ‘unting
Heinemann, 1909

R S Surtees: Handley Cross

Edward Arnold, 1912

Svend Fleuron: Wild Horses of Iceland
Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1933

Horse and pony stories illustrated by Cecil Aldin

Anna Sewell: Black Beauty

Jarrolds, 1912

Eleanor Helme & Nance Paul: Jerry, the Story of an Exmoor Pony

Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1930

Eleanor Helme & Nance Paul: The Joker and Jerry

Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 193

(later reprinted under the confusing title The Joker and Jerry Again, with a non-Aldin dustjacket)

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