Among the most universally admired examples of Chinese ceramic sculpture are the majestic horses made for the tombs of the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) aristocracy. These horses, representing wealth and power, played a significant part in emphasising the importance of the occupant of the tomb. They were not just war horses or horses used for transport, but were also horses employed in leisure activities. Polo, for example, was a popular pursuit at the Tang court and was played by both men and women. It was specifically encouraged by two Tang emperors, Taizong and Xuanzong, as being excellent for development of certain useful skills. The horses depicted are the revered 'blood-sweating' horses, which were introduced into central China from the West during the Han dynasty. These Ferghana horses were known for their speed, power and stamina, qualities which are brought out by the ceramic artist.
The beautiful dark bay colouring of this horse is very rare. A much smaller horse coloured with this deep, rich brown glaze was found in the tomb of Prince Yide, who died in AD 701. The latter example, which is being ridden by a huntsman with a hawk on his wrist, was excavated in 1971 and is now in the National Museum of History, Beijing (illustrated by Li Jian in The Glory of the Silk Road - Art from Ancient China, Dayton Art Institute, 2003, p. 173, no. 88). The horse from the prince's tomb, and a number of other smaller horses with riders, share with the current example the feature of bearing a saddle but no bridle or trappings. Another riderless horse, slightly smaller than the current example, but sharing the lack of bridle as well as a very similar saddle cover, numnah,and mud guard is in the collection of the University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong (illustrated in Heavenly Horses, Hermès, Hong Kong, 1997, pp. 88-9, no. 23). In the case of the current large, riderless, horse it may be that the bridle was originally made of some organic material, such as leather, which would not have survived twelve hundred years of burial. This horse was certainly intended to have other organic additions. There is a groove running along the back of the neck, from the ears almost to the whithers, which was intended to provide a fixing for a real horse-hair mane. There is similar fixing hole for a tail. While holes to allow the insertion of a real horse-hair tail are seen on a number of Tang dynasty horses, provision for a real hair mane is extremely rare, although a chesnut horse with this feature from the collection of Dominic de Grunne was sold by Sotheby's London in November 1972. This feature combined with the unusual colouring and realistic cream blaze on its muzzle suggest that the current horse may have been a special order intended to represent a particular animal beloved by the occupant of the tomb.
The thermoluminescence analysis report, Oxford C103f79 is consistent with the dating of this lot.