This summer, the British Museum offers us the opportunity to get up close and personal with one of the bravest, boldest and most important horsewomen that England has ever produced. It’s not the queen. It’s not Mary King, Zara Phillips or one of the nine other ladies on Team GB’s 2012 Equestrian team. And no, it’s definitely not Katie Price. Because the most inspiring figure in the museum’s impressive newly exhibition ‘The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot’ is one hundred and seventy five years old and you’ve probably never heard of her.
It would be easy to miss Anne Isabella Noel Blunt, 15th Baroness Wentworth. Sandwiched between a wall-sized interactive touch-screen showing panoramic shots of ancient Saudi Arabian equine rock art on one side, and Ahmed Moustafa’s purposely commissioned painting ‘Horse and Horseman’, a kaleidoscopic depiction of a mount and rider entirely made up of Islamic calligraphy, on the other, the display of faded journal pages and grainy photographs looks deceptively unexciting, But the story of Anne Blunt is as thrilling and romantic as any film.
So much so, in fact, that Saudi resident Rebecca Savard, alongside Emmy award-winning producer Kieran Baker, and historian and scriptwriter Cynthia Cuthwright, is making one. “I am simply inspired by her courage and passion,” Savard explains when asked what captured her imagination about Blunt. “I believe Lady Anne serves as a terrific role model for young women everywhere. In a time when the world seems to be becoming a smaller place, understanding of different people and cultures is critical, and what is portrayed in the media is not always accurate. This is a time of great change in the Arab region, and there are many women who are succeeding in areas that are shaping their worlds.”
Blunt was born in 1837 to William King, 1st Earl of Lovelace, and Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, herself a pretty impressive woman: daughter of the poet Byron, she is widely credited as being the world’s first computer programmer and was recently made namesake of an annual day devoted to celebrating the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Her daughter was a chip off the old block; fluent in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Arabic, a skilled violinist and a gifted artist who studied drawing with John Ruskin, young Anne displayed all the accomplishments of the English noblewoman. But her real passion was for horses, in particular the exotic, elegant Arabian breed, which still inspires devotion from artists, writers and pony-mad teenagers worldwide.
Anne married the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt in 1869, and Wilfred’s common love for equestrianism, along with his interest in Middle Eastern politics, led the couple to co-found the Crabbet Arabian Stud in Sussex and to travel the world procuring and breeding the best Arabians in order to preserve the purity of the line. As Blunt adventured through Arabia and the Middle East, she kept meticulous journals of her experiences – mid-desert bivouacs in Bedouin tents, visits to recover stallions from unscrupulous Egyptian dealers - complete with delicate, evocative sketches.
Throughout history, horses have more often been an instrument for destruction and colonization than a tool for cultural empathy, but Blunt’s journals display a curiosity and open-mindedness unusual for her time and class. “Mostly, I admire Lady Anne for how she acted as an ambassador for the Arab people”, Savard explains. “Through her writing, art, and work with Arabian horses, she provided a glimpse into a world that little was known about in her time.”
Others obviously agree; Savard’s film is backed by HH Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al Saud (Chairman of the Saudi Equestrian Board of Trustees), HRH Prince Mohammad bin Nawaf Al Saud (Saudi Ambassador in the UK) and the Layan Cultural Foundation, and her team hope to finish it in time to hit the festival circuit in 2013. However, in the innovative spirit of Anne, the documentary will be no sentimental romance. “It will be a modern-day recreation of Lady Anne’s journey”, says Savard. “Her diaries document the compass points of her adventure, and we will follow this route on horseback, with all modern technology such as GPS and satnav. Viewers will be able to see the difficulties encountered in crossing the desert in modern times, which will reflect in the overwhelming efforts it took for the Blunts to make the same journey in the 1800s.”
Blunt’s ending was not a particularly happy one; her husband had several mistresses, often simultaneously, leading her to push for a divorce in 1906. In 1915 she permanently decamped to Sheykh Obeyd, their 32 acre estate and breeding farm near Cairo, but continued to be pestered by Wilfred for money and became estranged from her daughter Judith. However, her legacy still resonates through the equestrian world today, as the vast majority of purebred Arabian horses can still trace their lineage to at least one Crabbet ancestor.
When asked to name a modern horsewoman who channels Anne’s spirit, Savard doesn’t hesitate. “The name that immediately springs to mind is Dalma Rushdi Malhas, a young woman who was on-track to be one of the first females to participate under the Saudi flag at the 2012 Olympics. Unfortunately, her horse fell ill, and she was unable to attend.”
And so, while she will enjoy watching the other competitors – many of whose mounts may have traces of Crabbet blood – Savard still remains most influenced by that accomplished Victorian girl who loved horses more than anything else. “I moved to Saudi Arabia 8 years ago without knowing much about the people and their culture, other than what I saw on the news. Lady Anne’s determination to travel through the desert and experience a different culture is something I keep in my mind every day, and serves as an inspiration for me to learn as much as I can about a way of life so different from my own.”
The British Museum’s exhibition provides exactly that - a way into other worlds through the history of our relationship with this iconic, extraordinary animal. It’s well worth a lingering visit, not least because it’s free. Just don’t forget to visit that modest little cabinet of old papers and photographs.
This feature originally appeared in London Calling