Foxhunting has a long and storied tradition in European and British lore. English poet Geoffrey Chaucer makes a fourteenth-century reference to an entire village shouting “Ho! Ho! The fox!” before chasing it with the next best thing to hounds—cudgels. The sport has had strong advocates in the upper classes of the British Isles (as well as in France) for centuries. In the eighteenth century, the sport became all the rage with “young men of fashion, who took great pleasure in jumping their horses.”

As I studied depictions of English and American foxhunts in Dennis’s house or on the walls of the National Sporting Library in nearby Middleburg, Virginia, I noticed the outlines of an exclusive society. In some pictures, country squires stood casually discussing the hunt in the company of their pedigreed horses and well-bred hounds. The paintings presented a microcosm of a gentleman’s life—a veritable theater of upper-class pleasures. Where were the pigs, chickens, and common laborers in these pictures? There were few hints of the toil—often by slaves—that went into planting and harvesting, nor of the squalor of everyday life for the masses. These were ignored, or at best overlooked, by haughty eyes. Naturally, depictions of foxhunting have always been wildly popular with those who love the sport. The scenes of foxhunters in tri-cornered hats leaning against their steeds as hounds lap water present an idealized view of English and Virginia country life, the very style of life that well-to-do folks—even in modern Virginia—aspire to. The more I contemplated these scenes of racing horses and salivating dogs, the more I came to see this as a surreal world, or, as one British art historian put it, “an almost magical world with its own inherent logic.”

An excellent depiction of 18th Century foxhunters assembled with their hounds as the fawning public looks on in awe at the power and ease of aristocratic authority in action.

 

My foxhunting friend, Col. Foster, demonstrates how man and beast become one as they leap to amazing height and distance in a traditional chase.

 

Curmudgeonly Lord Fairfax was the very definition of an old school British “sportsman.” He was accompanied by George on numerous hunts and would grow fond of the young man who lost his own father at the age of eleven.

 

Author greets an aging hunting hound at the Welbourne Estate in Upperville, Virginia.

 

Dapper Huntsman prepares to embark on a day’s chase.

 

Huntsman and his pack disperse in a corn field before running the culverts in search of a scent.

 

French Hunt. Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington shared an interest in hunting on horseback, an ancient and aristocratic form of the “chase,” which kept them occupied in vigorous, demanding exercise. The British would eventually use foxhunting as a means to train their young officers.

 

Foxhunting in the Shenandoah. No longer an exclusively male sport.

 

Foxhunting with Col. Foster. The “chase” is a sport that thrives on protocol and daring, both of which young George embraced and excelled at when hunting with the Fairfax family.

 

Riding with Col. Dennis Foster, foxhunter and history buff extraordinaire.

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