Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Ahead of Her Time: Equine Artist Virginia Orison

I've written before about the great importance of horse books and magazines in the life of young model horse collectors in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. One of the most important sources of horse-related information -- and temptation -- was Western Horseman magazine.

One of the best things about going to the pharmacy to leaf through the latest issue of Western Horseman every month, was the display advertising with photos of the items for sale: not just tack and western wear, but also horse-themed books and notecards and jewelry and art prints and figurines. It was enough to melt the mind of a horsey kid who only got between 10 and 25 cents a week allowance.

And in so many issues of Western Horseman were horse figurines that were way outside my five-and-dime-store budget: original works of art by Virginia Orison (1912-1970) of Blackfoot, Idaho.

If you saw them at an antique store or estate sale and didn't know what they were, you might pass the Orison horses by, because they lack the extreme detail we're used to seeing in model horse figurines these days.  But they are tiny pieces of Midcentury equine history indeed.

Occasionally Orison's horse figurines turn up inside the model horse hobby.  My Facebook friend Nicci Noel has found two of the Quarter Horses.  One is the Quarter Horse mold in palomino, with a western saddle.

Note the detail on the base.

The saddle is removable. 

And the horse is signed on the underside of his belly.

Nicci's second Virginia Orison Quarter Horse has a hair mane and tail, and is mounted on a lamp. 

Despite his condition issues, this Quarter Horse still has a great deal of character.

Recently I started searching for information on Virginia Orison and her equine art.  Orison and her husband Jim were well-known in the Idaho horse community.  For a time, she was the head of the Intermountain Arabian Horse Association.  The Orisons' names appear regularly in Idaho horse show results during the 1950s and 1960s. This May 18, 1952 article in the Idaho State Journal talks about their chestnut Arabian stallion, Tarih AHR 5984 (Olnatar x Rozala).

(Yes, the newspaper spelled the horse's name wrong in the caption.)

Sidebar: Arabian horse history fans will be interested to know that Tarih was descended from some of the most famous horses of their day, including those owned by the Crabbet Arabian Stud, the Kellogg Ranch, and the Maynesboro Stud.  The Orisons also gained local fame with a son and daughter of Tarih, Safarih and Bintarih.

Even in the mid-1940s, Virginia Orison's fame as a designer of horse figurines was beginning to spread.  This April 19, 1946 article in the Idaho Falls, Idaho Post-Register includes a photo of her Arabian horse in western tack that won a prize at the state fair in 1945.

This article describes the horse figurines as being made of clay. It also shows us that Virginia Orison was something of a Renaissance Woman.  

Virginia Orison was a "rodeo queen, calf roper, cowgirl, farmer-rancher's wife, musician, and civic worker" in addition to being an artist.

Orison's earliest model horse designs 
included Arabians and Thoroughbreds. 

Orison also designed Quarter Horses and Palominos in the 1940s. This article says her first model was of a Palomino, and that the figurines averaged 9 inches tall.

Virginia Orison started riding horses
when she was 3 years old.

The same story appeared in the June 2, 1946 issue of the Salt Lake City Tribune. It included photos of Orison, an Arabian without tack, and a Thoroughbred with English tack.

On September 26, 1949, the Post-Register reported that a local draft horse owner had commissioned Orison to design scale models of his Shire horses.  The article says Orison had moved her 3D equine art into a factory made from a converted chicken coop in the country.

By 1951, Orison was taking out ads for the most popular breeds of her equine art in Western Horseman magazine.  I've also seen her ads in old copies of Horse Lover's magazine. 

Over the years, readers saw a number of her designs. The horses were offered with or without tack, customized to particular colors and markings as the buyer desired. The earliest ads show a base price of $5.00 (without tack) to $10.00 (with tack), which underscores the fact that these were not toys -- they were decorative objects to enhance the horse lover's environment.  As the years went on, the prices increased.

This Appaloosa could be mounted on a trophy base 
with a "sun ray plate and engraving"
or on a "lamp with western shade."

The Arabian also came "with or without real mane and tail."

The American Saddlebred could be customized
as a 5-gaited or 3-gaited horse.
Here's one of Orison's Arabians in western tack, mounted on the base of a lamp.

This ad for Orison's Morgan horse design shows that she was taking orders via a location in California, where she lived for three years before returning to Idaho.

An article in the April 3, 1966 Idaho State Journal describes Orison's horses as being made from "clay and wood composition" based on her original clay models.  The reporter described the variety of Orison's work, including cattle, and noted that by this time, the mid-1960s, her work had been purchased by collectors all over the world.

"A Brahma bull, a cow-girl on a small Arabian horse, an Arabian with rider dressed in authentic Arabian costume, an Arabian with rider dressed in western costume, and a model of 'Black Jack," the horse in President Kennedy's funeral procession."

"Arabians, Quarter Horse, American Saddlebred, Appaloosa, Morgan, Tennessee Walker, show Shetland pony, Pinto, Palomino, thoroughbred, Hackney, Standardbred, Mule, Burro, Donkey, Clydesdale, Percheron, Suffolk, Shire, Belgian and others...calf roper and two, four, six and eight-horse hitches."

Here's an ad for the calf roper from an old horse magazine.

Virginia Orison died on November 1970, at the age of 58.  Her obituary appeared in the Idaho State Journal on the 22nd.

Why isn't Virginia Orison's name better known in the world of model horse collecting? It's possible that few people remember her simply because the older people in the hobby today were still children during her heyday and could not afford her work. Then, too, Orison's horse figurines were not toys; rather, they were decorative objects, lamps, and trophy tops. Prolific as she was as an individual, Orison was creating each piece by hand, rather than having them mass-produced.

Another major factor appears to be that the figurines made of "clay and wood composition" were pretty fragile under their three coats of lacquer, and many have started to disintegrate over the decades.  
Still, you see them from time to time on eBay and in model horse groups on Facebook. 

Virginia Orison's work foreshadowed the model horse hobbyists' fascination with horse breeds, conformation, and tack. Starting in the 1940s alongside Gladys Brown Edwards metal horses, and overlapping the 1960s-70s heydays of Breyer, Hartland, Hagen-Renaker, or the Marx "Best of the West" series, Virginia Orison was helping to pave the way for more realistic model horse figurines in the home.

Here's a link to several more of them via the Model Horse Gallery.

1 comment:

  1. Great Scott. I'm 58 myself.
    Thank you so much for this very interesting and informative post. Some of these horse poses are so familiar. Faint bells are being rung: I must have seen them as a child in the Patagonia Horse Museum and other places. Alas no direct memory.