Famous racehorse portrait gets a new look in estate restoration
It was one race against time that was never going to be lost, given that it involved one of the world's most famous racehorse paintings.
This huge 12ftx7ft masterpiece - Hambletonian, Rubbing Down - is hundreds of years old and has been reframed as part of a multi-million restoration project at the National Trust's Mount Stewart property on the shores of Strangford Lough.
The stately home is due to re-open to the public next April after a £7.5m, three-year upgrade, and pride of place will go to the reframed and rehung picture by artist George Stubbs of the famous racehorse Hambletonian.
The painting shows the animal being tended to after a race at Newmarket in 1799.
Hambletonian was one of best thoroughbred horses of the late 18th century, having won all of his race starts except one.
Jon Kerr, National Trust manager at Mount Stewart, said: "It's a hugely exciting time at Mount Stewart as we approach the final few months of our restoration project in the house and gardens.
"As part of that we are starting to see the rewards of years of hard work by our teams of volunteers and experts.
"We are also extremely grateful to a number of our supporters whose generosity has enabled us to complete projects like this one.
"Hambletonian is one of those iconic features of Mount Stewart, and one that visitors love to see.
"The simple painted frame which visitors may have been familiar with has now been replaced with a more traditional gilt frame, which is more appropriate for a painting of such national significance.
"We are lucky that Northern Ireland is home to such a stunning piece of art that would be the envy of any gallery in the world."
The priceless painting was generously gifted to the trust by the late Lady Mairi Bury and is regarded by experts as the most significant painting within the trust's local collection.
Visitors to Mount Stewart can view Hambeltonian, Rubbing Down when the house reopens in April. The conservation project at Mount Stewart will open up a range of additional rooms and features, as the landmark house and gardens are restored to their former glory.
Lady Mairi Bury was born Mairi Elizabeth Vane Tempest Stewart on March 25, 1921. Living at Mount Stewart, she had the first thoroughbred stud in Northern Ireland. With her horse Fighting Charlie she twice won the Ascot Gold Cup. Many of her forebears had also been racehorse owners.
The George Stubbs painting was brought to Mount Stewart by Lady Mairi Bury from Londonderry House in London around 1962. It was formerly displayed in a plain angled frame, imitating two other frames in use at Mount Stewart at the time. The surround was painted the same colour as the wall, so as to give the impression that the painting was virtually frameless. This was to imitate the effect at Londonderry House, where it was set into panelling. The painting originally came to the family via Frances Anne Vane Tempest, wife of the 3rd Marquess, and daughter of Hambletonian's owner.