THE DEVILS STEEPLECHASETHE DEVILS STEEPLECHASE
The Celebrated Steeple Chase between his Satanic Majesty and the King of Terrors.
n.p. , n.p. [1830- after 1837].
Oblong Imperial Octavo. (183x270mm). Contemporary brick red half-calf, recently rebacked, marbled boards. Rubbing to edges, some scuffing to the boards and bumping to the corners, otherwise in very good condition. Some browning and marking internally. Two leaves removed at some point in its history, one leaf has a short clean tear which does not affect the image; another has become detached. Twenty eight leaves. The first seventeen leaves contain ten pages (a "Title page" and nine paginated pages) of manuscript text with the title "The Celebrated Steeple Chase between his Satanic Majesty and the King of Terrors" and nine full page watercolours illustrating the story. The rest of the book contains three full page watercolours on a riding or racing theme. There is a half page watercolour and a coloured sketch on a military theme and there are ten unfinished pen and ink sketches and silhouettes (mainly on military or equestrian themes) at the beginning and end of the book including on the endpapers. The book also includes, in manuscript over four and a half pages, "The Tragedy" from The Ingoldsby Legends which tells the story of Catherine of Cleves. In places this has the look and feel of a commonplace or sketchbook but the story of the Steeplechase between the Devil and Death (the latter represented as a skeleton) which forms the bulk of the book is attractively presented with beautiful, high quality water-colours.
This extraordinary and apparently unique book has no author's name and the illustrations are unsigned. The only clues about the dates are on the first, "title" page of the Steeplechase which states that the race is "to be run on the 12th March 1830 over a sporting country - distance to be about 4 miles from point to point". The other clue is the poem from the Ingoldsby Legends which was first published in 1837 but as this comes after the Steeplechase in the book it is possible that there was a long gap between the two pieces.
The date of the race illustrated in the Steeplechase is, interestingly, only four days after what is usually described as the first English National Steeplechase (also over four miles), run in Bedfordshire and regarded as one of the inspirations for what became the Grand National at Aintree. This may only be a coincidence but the satirical nature and high quality of the work do perhaps indicate a prominent set of targets. The story is rich with the details of racing – there is talk of betting and weights and the fictional course (Bran-Mill to [Rocrop?] Churchyard). The Devil begins well and appears to have the race won when Death falls into a water ditch. However, he becomes complacent while Death recovers and catches up. As they approach the Churchyard, the Devil cannot jump the final fence "whether from his horse not having a jump left, or from Satan himself not liking the smell of consecrated ground". Death leaps into the cemetry "as easily as if he were driving through his own park gates" and celebrates his victory by throwing his head (which is of course a skull) in the air and catching it several times.
There appear to be no precedents for this work or other similar examples. It is as if Henry Alken (whose work is echoed here) reimagined the dance of death.