Monday, July 1, 2013

Labres Restituit, Libri

This post picks up where the Restorations post left off, but first a little context:

Imagine being 17, horse-crazy, enrolled in college, and you luck into a horse painting workshop, held three states away on an Arabian farm. During the workshop, the instructor, herself an Equine Images magazine columnist, invites you to spend a night in her spooky Victorian home. Why? Because you just learned what Portraitures of Horses is, and she won't let it leave her property. She calls it her "horse painting Bible", and as a very religious person, she is not being glib, or irreverent. She is not the only professional artist to call it that. There are no copy machines within an hour of the place. This is long before everyone carried digital cameras and cell phones. You have one night to read it all, memorizing as many illustrations as you can, because you never know when you will see it again, and it is vital to your career progress. Don't worry, nothing untoward or scary happened. I know, because that was me.

A year later, back at home, still in school, with an internship at a foofy gallery, and my work was selling meh-to-OK there. School ate all my income. I paid $10 of my earnings for a used book search at a local shop. This search involved the book shop putting out a request to the very earliest, primitive internet mailing lists, and asking if any other used book shops would like to submit a quote for their copy (if one existed). This felt like a complete gamble, throwing money into the electronic void. Supposedly, only 500 copies were printed, and to collectors, they were selling for $300-400 each. One had just sold for $2,200 at auction. The odds were so stacked against me, but I did it anyways, because sometimes my artist heroes find me. You just have to try, put a wish out there, and hope.

From my journal: 

"Today, [Roseboro House] left a message:
'We have a quote on George Ford Morris, Portraitures of Horses.' 
I'm calling back tomorrow after school. In the meantime, I can bask in the glow of being lucky enough to get an opportunity to purchase Portraitures... I really would like to be able to afford this book. I'm hoping for the best."

The next day: 

"I called Roseboro, my innards quaking and palms damp. First, the proprietress described it:
'George Ford Morris, Portraitures of Horses, published 1952, Fordacre Studios, very good condition...'
Me: 'Forty-two dollars and fifty cents?'
'Yes, $42.50.'
'I'll take it!'
(I hope the decimal placement is correct on that price!)"

When it finally came in, 19 days later, I had just spent the better part of a week helping build a 12-foot-long sea monster, and other set items, for my friend's haunted house attraction. I was exhausted, but nothing could keep me from the book. I think I fell asleep sitting upright before dinnertime, just clutching it.

I loved this book so much, I bought an acid-free, extra-large photographer's box for it to live in. It was sold as "very good condition", but I was blind to the foxing, mildew, and I didn't even know it was supposed to have a dust jacket. I just knew it had a great deal less oil paint drips on the pages than my instructor's copy! Among my books, it was, and still is, my most cherished. The acid-free box has long since worn out, and that's saying something. 

Just because I admired George Ford Morris does not mean I couldn't use a critical eye. While I was perusing the instructor's copy, I wrote in my journal:

"I don't like how his horses are always 'eyeballin', or rolling their eyes white. Even on at rest horses? Only Apps should have white... He also leaves out eyelashes most of the time!"

That last bit is important. Present Me is very glad Past Me noticed that about his art.

So, despite taking the workshop, and owning "the Bible", I ended not being an easel painter for my profession. I took the road less travelled, sculpture. Even so, the Bible had a single page of 3D works, and one must use a magnifying glass to study it. 

I thought I knew this page, after almost 20 years. Then something absolutely nuts happened, last year. This post appeared on the breakables model horse yahoogroup:

I received this on one of the Morgan Yahoo groups I am on. Thought
you all might enjoy looking at the art and especially the sculptures.
It would be SO COOL if someone could purchase the sculptures, restore
them and cast them as artist resins! Not sure how the copyright law
would work there, but a girl can dream :-)

[-Laura Behning]*

>This is the link to photos of some of the items in her collection:

>If anyone is interested, please contact her directly.
>From: "XXXXX" <XXXXX@...>
>Sent: Saturday, February 18, 2012 10:43 AM
>To: <customerservice@...>
>Subject: Contact Us: I have a collection of George Ford Morris' art, (3)
>horse sculptures, signed lithographs, copper lithograph plates, signed
>sketches, book covers, and misc. extras. I want to sell them. Would you be
>interested or know someone who would be? I can send photos and a list of the
>36 items.  
(xxx) xxx-xxxx or "XXXXX" <XXXXX@...>
> > I have a collection of George Ford Morris' art, (3) horse sculptures,
> > signed lithographs, copper lithograph plates, signed sketches, book
> > covers, and misc. extras. I want to sell them. Would you be interested or
> > know someone who would be? I can send photos and a list of the 36 items.
> >  (xxx) xxx-xxxx or 

Needless to say, I was one of the people who contacted her. She had a nice list of works for sale, but most intriguing to me were her photos of three damaged plaster castings of his sculpture work: Hambletonian, Saddle Weanling, and Draft Horse. How did she come by this treasure trove? In her own words:

"My inlaws bought GFM's summer home in Shrewsbury, NJ in 1960. His studio Fordacre was in the carriage house on the property. I sold a few of the books you mentioned, however I honestly never even looked at them years ago. Anyways, I posted the photos and began getting calls imediately. Two people want to come over tomorrow. One offered $XXXX. Another $XXXX. The interest was generated so fast that I decided to take my time talking to people before making a decision. I will look up your site and get back with you in a few days. Thank you for the contact."

She had misidentified one of the sculptures, and asked me to send her photos of the sculptures shown in the book, as she no longer had a copy. My wish was to purchase just one item out of the collection, the Draft horse sculpture. He has been my favorite, since I laid eyes on the book. As it happened, Ed Alcorn purchased the entire collection. Happily, we know each other and visit during each BreyerFest.

Laura's earlier breakables comment about reproducing the old sculptures had struck a chord with both of us, separately. Just imagine what model horse painters could do for such a canvas! Ed and I started talking about looking into the copyright status of Morris' works, and what services my studio could offer. The first concern was restoration of the plaster models. The conversation dropped off for months at a time.

On April Fool's Day, 2013, I received:

"Is tomorrow OK?  I could use your address and phone number."

I thought Ed was pulling my leg. I sent him my information anyway, and on April 2nd, I was the luckiest restorer in the world. A horse trailer pulled up to the studio, and three large plaster castings from Morris' studio were unloaded.

Why is it important to restore a humble medium such as plaster? These sculptures are extremely rare, and were not ever cast in bronze or other permanent media. In his lifetime, Morris sculpted only six full-body horses, that I know of. All of them were cast in plaster from the original clay models. It is unknown how many castings of each were poured. Of the Hambletonian and his ideal Saddlebred weanling, GFM wrote:

"Neither of these efforts satisfied me and I have not attempted to put them on the market. Have always hoped, however, that an opportunity would come to finish them up from some life models, possessing their main characteristics, but haven't gotten around to it yet."

-p. 255, Portraitures of Horses, 1952

I guess all of us artists see things we wish to change in our works. If you examine the photo of GFM with his two Drafter models, you can see that one has the pose and tail changed. 

Photo from Portraitures.

The face and mane (long bridlepath?) are also different enough to make me wonder if that is an entirely original, lost GFM Draft horse sculpture.

Left: Mystery Drafter; right: known Drafter

Despite his claim of incompletion, GFM painted some of his castings of all three horses. He even made tack and mane/tail rosettes for at least two of the Drafters. In the model horse world, as well as the equine art world, we recognize this stage of a sculpture as "finished".

So, with all this build up, knowing how rare they are, and two decades of believing I would never even see them in person, I didn't cry. Yes, my eyes welled up. I didn't throw my arms around each sculpture. I wanted to, but they were in such rough shape, I was afraid to touch them, and crying would only be unwelcome moisture. We took some photos, and later set them on cotton bath towels on my studio countertops.

Ed asked us (me and my husband, Paul) to mold and reproduce the sculptures after they were restored. Paul decided we should start with the most difficult and largest, the Drafter. Naturally.

He's only 26 inches tall by 30 inches long. Yes, almost 2 x 3 feet.

GFM writes that he was sculpted entirely from life, a portrait of Eli Lilly's (famous for Lilly baking flour) imported Percheron, "Labres". He is GFM's last sculpture, finished around 1950, right before he started the book.

Sadly, this rare plaster of Labres appeared to have been stored under a leaky roof, because one half of his body surface and base was honeycombed, from dripping water leaching out the minerals. 

As he was hollow cast (slush cast, in plaster terms) with a steel armature, his interior was filled with mold, and extensive rust wherever the armature was moistened. The mold proliferated even more because some air could reach it; the mouth corners were drilled through, to hold a future bit. He had been knocked over, at some point, and shattered off his ears and his foreleg. Only metal antennae of ear armatures and beaten chunks remained. 

All four legs had been cracked. Someone had tried to patch the raised leg back on with rubbery wall spackle.

In the old days, artists sealed plaster models with beeswax. Later, shellac was used. It appears that both had been applied to this Labres. On top of that, a layer of nicotine had adhered. Then, someone had sanded off some of his coatings, possibly to smooth out where he had fallen and chipped.

Alone, in my studio, assessing all this destruction, I cried a little. It is impossible to understand how such beautiful, rare, and valuable art can be allowed to get to this state.

The first step was dusting him off with compressed air. I couldn't put any moisture to the old plaster to clean it. It was almost 70 years old! The air took off the big fluffs of dirt and some of the nicotine-enhanced shellac.

Certain areas had careless, thick drips of shellac and spackle, and I had to use the finest minarettes (drop-forged tools made for plaster sculpting) to pry those off. You know that scene in The Princess Bride, where Inigo prays, "Guide my sword"? I was doing that, to GFM, for the entire duration. I was terrified my tools might slip and gouge the aged, water-worn plaster.

The white line down his cheek is where an enormous shellac drip was removed.

That's coming from someone who has been making plaster molds for twelve years, and making ceramics since 1993 (college). I do not spook at fragile stuff very easily. 

I had to remove everything that wasn't original Labres. When it came to his face, I thought that his eyelashes must have been broken off. Then, I re-read my journal, checked his book, and realized that, no, they had never been there. I could not put anything on that did not belong there. Same story with the ears: GFM made the ears close at a different point than actual horse ears close, but I could not "fix" it.

The excessive gooey spackle made this a bit of an archeological dig. After I removed the goop, I had to use art quality epoxy to rebuild the missing pieces, using a magnifier and my copy of his book, turned to the one page. Of course, I took precautions.

Stabilizing layers, pressed into place, first.

Less is more, so I kept as many surface chips exposed as possible, with minimal epoxy. The leg chestnut was reconstructed from his book photos.

Honeycombed surfaces were stabilized with a pressed film of epoxy.
Even here, I wanted as much original surface preserved as possible.

Ears were rebuilt from his photos, and I even continued his tool grooves across the surfaces.

Imagine the thrill of finding GFM's fingerprints, still visible under all that shellac!

Finally, one day, he was whole again. The pain of seeing all his wounds... went away. GFM's original fingerprints, mold seams, finger-pressed mane sweeps, lumps and bumps are all preserved. I did not cosmetically enhance it; it is as close to original as possible.

Paul immediately began making his mold. Due to Labres' size, only fiberglass castings would be strong and lightweight enough to ship to museums and collectors. This required a jacketed silicone mold. First, the original has to be protected from the shims and the wet clay needed to build the silicone positive. 

The clay has to be smoothed out and keys sculpted in place. 
This material will be wholly replaced with high quality molding silicone.

With hands a-blur, Paul quickly lays up the fiberglass shell over the clay.
After the other side and the bottom of the base are similarly constructed, one half of clay is removed, and the segments are bolted together. 

Then, for each separate segment, silicone is poured through big holes in its jacket.

The resin media, or "mud", binds the fiberglass mat together.
These pieces are then bonded together, with more of their own material.
The seams are trimmed, puttied, and a raw clone is ready.

Fiberglass media are considered museum quality.
Many museums have fiberglass sculptures, dinosaur fossils, and other large replicas.
These 1:1 fiberglass GFM Labres replicas can be purchased from Ed Alcorn.

Labres with another of his sons. Mud color varies.

The original model horse customizer?
GFM painted and tacked a dark dapple gray plaster casting of Labres to suit his own whim.
He wrote that the real horse was a white gray.

Photos by GFM, from Portraitures.

This brings us to the model horse side of the discussion. We are attempting a 100% accurate reduction of this sculpture, for those who prefer a smaller canvas. The first attempt kicked too hot, but there is always the next try! I will be sure to share an update on this blog, as my goal is to produce him in ceramic. After all, I glaze dapples after GFM's painted dapples.

In closing this chapter of the Labres labor of love, I have to draw your attention to another odd coincidence. GFM died in Arcadia, CA. Maureen Love frequently drew horses from life at the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia. Decades later, I sculpted horses, in a rental house on the backside of Santa Anita. Maureen and I both owned treasured copies of his Portraitures. How odd for all of us to be tied there. It makes you wonder if she ever got to meet him?

Gratitude to Ed Alcorn, for letting me be a part of this!


Morris, George Ford. Portraitures of Horses. Pp 254-5, 259. Fordacres Studios: Shrewsbury, NJ, 1952.

*a photo contributor to this blog, in the past. Hi, Laura!


  1. The book has always been one of my most precious possessions since I paid off the layaway in the 1950s -- I found it remaindered (!!) at a Doubleday Book Store in Fort Worth TX. If I'd known what I'd found, I would have put all the copies -- 3 or 4, I think -- in layaway. They were complete with bookjackets. I love to page through the book even today. Thank you, Kristina and Ed and Paul, for bringing this wonderful piece back to life for all of us to enjoy.

  2. Amazing. The thought of GFM's fingerprints still being there gives me chills. <3

  3. when I read this today I was OH MY GOD! NO WAY!!! I am so jealous of you right now that you got to do this! GFM is one of my most very favorite horse artists, and I had no idea he sculpted! You are so lucky Christina. I hope you are able to cast this guy smaller in resin and I want one so bad! I don't have the book but I am always on the lookout for one I can afford. thats been the problem, when I have seen one they cost so much I can't afford it but is on my book grail list right there at the top! but to have a sculpture by him, wow. Will you be restoring and casting the rest of his sculptures also? I hope so and I hope you post lots of photos of them too. I wish I could have seen this guy in person. If I had the money Id love one full size! but I have no room in my tiny studio ( I live in my art studio which is a one bedroom art studio made for me in the back of my aunts horse barn) Do you know what he is asking for the castings of him? You know I would have bee just as excited as you were to see his finger prints there in the neck lol its funny the little things we can get all "oh wow" over. Now that I have found your blog I will be watching and reading for more on this and your work too of course. Funny, I just today got an email from Sommer Prosser today saying I had better enter the NAN medallion contest and I had better make it hard for you lol so I will attempt that! I entered once many years ago ( I think the year Sommer won) but I just haven't had time since then to enter again. Now to come up with a good design. I do have one plaque with your winning medallion on it here that Sommer sent me that won from one of the remake pieces I did for her so maybe that ill help me.

  4. Thank you, all! I am very happy to be a part of this.

    Yes, the other two will be getting restored. The Weanling is in progress.

    We put up an MH$P ad for the 1:1 size castings in museum quality fiberglass. They are huge, and I imagine few model horse collectors will have room for them. Museums and farms may have the space. I just learned today that the price includes foam fill and an antique bronze paintjob. It's pre-Breyerfest insanity and communication is not a priority inside the studio right now, ha ha!