The Highflyer coach was one of the oldest and most popular coaches on the road and probably next in importance to the mail coaches that ran in the 1700s. Among the stops that the Highflyer made for horses was Doncaster, where the principal coach proprietor was a man named Richard “Dickey” Wood. To aid Wood’s horsing of the Highflyer, he employed a man who drove the Highflyer, painted insignias on the sides of coaches, and painted signs for public houses and inns. This man was named John Frederick Herring, Sr.
Herring was the son of a Dutch fringe making merchant. Herring’s father had been born in America but Herring was born in London in 1795. From an early age Herring showed an interest in art and spent much of his free time drawing animals, particularly horses. Herring’s interest in art caused his father to send him to a local artist for training, but after a few lessons, the artist declared Herring knew more than he did.
At the age of nineteen, Herring fell madly in love and eloped with a young woman while his father was away in Holland. Herring, fearful of his father’s reaction because he lacked a job, randomly decided with his new wife to relocate to Doncaster. The penniless couple supposedly arrived “during the races of 1814 and saw William [the Duke of Hamilton’s horse] win the St. Leger [Stakes].”
Legend also has it that while in Doncaster Herring was walking down the street and “observed a workman with a pencil and palette striving to portray the Duke of Wellington on his charger.” Herring could not resist and offered to outline the animal for the workman. The workman was so impressed with Herring’s outline, he begged Herring to continue. During Herring’s artistic endeavor, Wood arrived, and, of course, Wood was likewise impressed and hired Herring on the spot.
Soon after Wood hired him, Herring asked for permission to drive the Highflyer. Wood was reluctant because although Herring might be a good artist, it was quite another matter to drive a Highflyer. Herring was determined and continued to press his case, and, so, at last Wood relented. Fortunately, for Herring, he was a success and soon was driving a regular nighttime Highflyer route.
During his Highflyer driving days, Herring continued to paint animals but primarily painted signs for pubic houses and inns. Some of his most remembered signs appeared on the “Coach and Horses in Scot Lane, the Brown Cow in Frengate, the White Lion in St. George Gate, the Stag in the Holmes, and the Salutation, near Hall Cross.” His Brown Cow sign caught one man’s attention who offered its owner twice what she paid for it, but the landlady replied she would not accept “twenty times as much.”
The Brown Cow sign incident caused a stir and Herring became somewhat of a local celebrity. Herring also soon discovered that painting was a more lucrative career than driving coaches, and he gave up coaching and began making hefty commissions painting people’s horses. However, over the course of Herring’s career, his greatest fame came from painting racehorses, “and for upwards of thirty years in succession he painted winners of the St. Leger [Stakes].”
In 1840-1841, Herring visited Paris. He went to Paris at the express invitation of the Duke of Orléans, who was the son of the French King Louis Phillipe I and grandson of Philippe Égalité, the notorious cousin of King Louis XVI who voted for the King’s death. While there, Herring was commissioned to paint five of the Duke of Orléans’ horses.
By 1845, Herring was appointed Animal Painter to HRH the Duchess of Kent. This honor was followed by subsequent commissions from Queen Victoria. She commissioned him to paint three of her horses — Bagda, a powerful black charged that belonged to Prince Albert, a white Arabian named Korseed, and the horse the royal children were taught to ride named Said. These commissions and others also enabled Herring to spend the last years of his life living as a country squire in Meopham Park, near Tonbridge, where he died 12 years later in 1865.
Herring’s abilities brought him acclamation and recognition. He is considered one of the most prolific and successful animal painters of the mid-nineteenth century. Besides his 33 winners of the St. Leger Stakes, Herring also painted 21 winners from the Derby. Moreover, one historian noted of Herring, that “of all the men who have painted the English race-horse, John Frederic Herring, without doubt, is entitled to stand first.”
- Bradley, Tom, The Old Coaching Days in Yorkshire, 1889
- Herring, John Frederick, Memoir of J.F. H. Esq., 1848
- Rice, James, History of the British Turf, Vol. 1, 1879