John Frederick Herring Sr.: Highflyer Coachman and Painter

John Frederick Herring Sr. was employed to drive the Highflyer and painted insignias on the sides of coaches and the signs for public houses and inns. 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. The man who employed Herring Sr. was the principal coach proprietor at Doncaster named Richard “Dickey” Wood.

John Frederick Herring, Sr., Courtesy of Wikipedia

John Frederick Herring, Sr. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Herring Sr. was born in London in 1795 to a Dutch fringe making merchant born overseas in America. From an early age Herring Sr. showed an interest in art and spent much of his free time drawing animals, particularly horses. His interest in art caused his father to send him to a local artist for training, but after a few lessons, the artist declared his student knew more than he did.

Painting by John Frederick Herring Sr. - Clydesdale Stallion painted in 1820.

Clydesdale stallion painted by John Frederick Herring Sr. in 1820. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At the age of nineteen, John Frederick Herring Sr. fell madly in love and eloped with a Ann Harris while his father was away in Holland. Fearful of his father’s reaction because he lacked a job, Herring Sr. 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].”[1]

Legend also has it that while in Doncaster, Herring Sr. was walking down the street and “observed a workman with a pencil and palette striving to portray the Duke of Wellington on his charger.”[2] Herring could not resist and offered to outline the animal for the workman. The workman was so impressed with Herring Sr.’s outline, he begged him to continue and during these artistic endeavors, Wood arrived. Of course, Wood was likewise impressed and immediately hired Herring Sr. on the spot. One story about how this supposedly happened follows and was published in 1848:

“In wandering through the town, where he was uninterested and unknown, he one morning came upon a coachmaker’s painting-shop, … he stopped almost involuntarily. The widely-opened doors discovered a young man busily engaged in attempting to give the proper pride of the boot to a new coach, the ‘Commander-in-Chief,’ his aim being an equestrian portrait of the Duke of Wellington … It was in vain, however, that he essayed on the proportions of the horse; he had never painted one before, and so when on a second visit young Herring entered into conversation with him, and offered to try his hand, his aid was gladly accepted, and the pencil given up to him for the outline. This was quickly achieved, and with so much satisfaction to his new acquaintance, that he was asked to colour it also. While thus engaged in completing the figure the master entered, and being at once struck with the ability of the stranger, employed him, after a brief interview, to paint the insignia of the ‘Royal Forrester,’ another coach he was then building … a while lion on one door and a rein-deer on the other.”[3]

Soon after Wood hired him, Herring Sr. asked for permission to drive the four-in-hand, the Highflyer. Wood was reluctant because although Herring Sr. might be a good artist, it was quite another matter to drive a Highflyer. However, Herring Sr. was determined and continued to press his case. At last Wood relented and fortunately for Herring Sr. he was successful and was soon driving a regular nighttime Highflyer route.

“The Edinburgh and London Royal Mail” by John Frederick Herring, Sr. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

John Frederick Herring Sr. also became a father. He and his wife had two daughters, Ann and Emma, and three sons, John F. Jr., Charles, and Benjamin. Both daughters married artists, with Ann wedding Harrison Weir. As to the boys, all three became artists and all painted in the same style as their father. John F. Jr. was the son Herring Sr. quarreled with the most; Charles was considered the best artist; and Benjamin became a successful horse painter.

During his Highflyer driving days, John Frederick Herring Sr. continued to paint animals but primarily painted signs for public houses and inns. Some of his most remembered signs appeared on the “Coach and Horses in Scot Lane, the Brown Cow in Frenchgate, the White Lion in St. George Gate, the Stag in the Holmes, and the Salutation, near Hall Cross.”[4] His Brown Cow sign caught one man’s attention and he offered its owner twice what she paid for it, but the landlady was so pleased with her sign she was against selling it and replied she would not accept “twenty times as much.”[5]

The Brown Cow sign incident caused a stir and Herring Sr. became somewhat of a local celebrity. He also soon discovered that painting was a more lucrative career than driving coaches, and he gave up coaching. He then began to make hefty commissions painting people’s horses. Yet, over the course of his career, his greatest fame came from painting racehorses, “and for upwards of thirty years in succession he painted winners of the St. Leger [Stakes].”[6]

In 1840-1841, Herring visited Paris at the express invitation of the Duke of Orléans, 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. At the time Paris was home to such interesting people as the salonist Madame Récamier, novelist Victor Marie Hugo, and the literary madman Gérard de Nerval. While in Paris, Herring Sr. was commissioned to paint five of the Duke of Orléans’ horses.

Duc D'Orleans, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Duke of Orléans. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By 1845, John Frederick Herring Sr. was appointed Animal Painter to the Duchess of Kent. That honor was followed by subsequent commissions from Queen Victoria, who 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 enabled Herring Sr. to spend the last years of his life living as a country squire near the spa town of Tonbridge Wells in Meopham Park, which is where he died 12 years later on 23 September 1865.

Of his death the Cambrian News reported:

“The death is announced for John Frederick Herring, the well-known animal painter, in the 71st year of his age. … When nineteen years of age he witnessed the St. Leger, at Doncaster, where he formed a strong desire to paint the winner. He did so with marked success, and for thirty-three years in succession he painted the winner of that race … Amongst his best works are his ‘Returning from Epsom,’ The Derby Day,’ … [and] a ‘Horse Fair,’ the scene of which is laid in a country village.”[7]

A Horse Fair on Southborough Common by John Frederick Herring Sr., Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The Silks and Satins of the Turf also remarked on his passing:

“For more than thirty years the famous animal painter, John Frederick Herring Sr., made studies of the winners of the Doncaster St. Leger, to say nothing of his pictures of coaching and hunting, and compositions illustrative of animal life in the straw-yard. … Herring was born a painter of animals.[8]

Author Sallie Walrond also noted in her 1988 Encyclopedia of Carriage Driving about Herring Sr.’s artistic abilities and compared two of his driving paintings:

“Perhaps the most famous are those of the ‘Cabriolet Horse and Tiger’ and the ‘Hackney Cabriolet Horse and Cabman.’ The former depicts a faultless grey horse harnessed ready for work. He is accompanied by a liveried ‘tiger.’ The stable is immaculate in every detail. The other picture shows, as a contrast, a worn-out grey horse which is over at the knee. He is standing in a dingy stall, wearing old harness, with a disreputable looking cabman by his side.”[9]

During Herring Sr.’s lifetime his abilities brought him acclamation and recognition. He is considered one of the most prolific and successful animal painters of the mid-nineteenth century. Besides painting 33 winners of the St. Leger Stakes, he also painted 21 winners from the Derby. Moreover, it was noted of him, that of all the artists who painted the English racehorse, John Frederick Herring Sr. was person “who in after life acquired such a fame as a painter of horses and coaching scenes as to give him the highest place of honour in his profession.”[10]

John Frederick Herring Sr. - Painting of Amato

Painting by John Frederick Herring Sr. of Amato, the winner of the Derby Stakes in 1838. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] Bradley, Tom, The Old Coaching Days in Yorkshire, 1889, p. 33.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Herring, John Frederick, Memoir of J.F. H. Esq., 1848, p. 5.
  • [4] Bradley, Tom, p. 33.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 34.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 35.
  • [7] “Miscellaneous,” Cambrian News, 7 October 1865, p. 3.
  • [8] “Silks and Satins of the Turf,: in London Evening Standard, 9 November 1865, p. 3.
  • [9] Walrdon, Sallie, The Encyclopedia of Carriage Driving, 1998, p. 157.
  • [10] Bradley, Tom, p. 32.

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