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Royal Ascot on canvas: Is this Britain at its best?

Story highlights

  • Artwork highlights the unique magic and mystique of racing at Royal Ascot
  • It captures the essence of Ascot in a collage of 200 collated photographs
  • Artist David Mach relishes the "pomp and pageantry, strawberries and foibles"
  • Mach's family equine interests lie less in horse racing and more in rodeo

It's like an imaginary movie momentarily on pause. Under a reddened English summer afternoon sky, taking center stage is Estimate, the royal horse that romped to victory at last year's Ascot Gold Cup.

Following Estimate in this fantasy snapshot of the past few decades of the most quintessentially of British racing days are such legendary horses as Black Caviar, Frankel, Dawn Approach and Yeats.

Delighted punters gyrate and gesticulate behind the rails in the artwork along with many key figures of Royal Ascot, such as Queen Elizabeth and the late Henry Cecil, legendary trainer of a record 75 victories at the course, brought to life in a collage of 200 photographs

Aptly named "The Great British Drama," the collage depicts the world's biggest racing event, during which 300,000 punters converge on the affluent English village from June 17-21 every year as competitors battle for the $8 million prize purse on offer.

"I love the idea of Royal Ascot, the pomp and pageantry, the strawberries and foibles," says its creator, Scottish artist David Mach.

"It's somehow an event that brings everyone together. I quite like that idea and tried to get a sense of that in the collage.

    "It's not quite a snapshot of Britain today but there are elements. You have a poor guy bristling with hatred for the rich guy, or both of them together cuddling. It's a great leveler as they throw their hats in the air after they've won, whether having bet £2 or £2,000, a shared delight.

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    "It's such a British thing, it's part of what I love about being British."

    Mach, however, seems to be the antithesis of Royal Ascot.

    In contrast to all the top hats and customs of the occasion, he is much more unorthodox, his artwork usually more risque than Ascot perhaps is used to, and his entertaining, humorous conversation is littered with language that can most euphemistically be described as "colorful."

    Plus there's the fact he is not exactly a racegoer. He has been to another English racecourse, Goodwood, on two occasions and, despite visiting Ascot to prepare for the collage, his first racing experience there will be this year.

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    Growing up, he had no great love for horse racing despite a shared passion by his parents.

    "I'm not interested in betting at all. I'm not sure if that's down to my parents who, on a Saturday morning, used to say, 'David, will you go to the betting shop for us.' I'd usually put on something like 10 pence each way for them," he recalls.

    "I remember one year my Mum putting money on a complete outsider. I remember thinking, 'That's not going to win,' but she insisted I put money on it."

    The horse in question was Foinavon, a shock 100-1 winner of the Grand National in 1967 courtesy of a mass pileup at the 23rd fence. Foinavon and jockey John Buckingham were far enough back in the field to avoid the melee and romp home to the most surprising win in the race's history.

    The bet's winnings paid for a family holiday.

    If anything, Mach's greater association with horses is in the rather less conventional world of rodeo, courtesy of relatives in Canada.

    "Rodeo's been my only real experience of horses," he says, "and that's pretty exciting. We've all seen it on TV or film and that doesn't do it justice.

    "My God almighty, that is dangerous. My wife's cousin's husband is called Burt the Bull rider and, to do what he does, you just have to be an absolute lunatic."

    As for his artwork, Mach's only previous equine creation of note is a 15-foot sculpture of a bucking stallion, which is at a show in Asia and is also available for sale.

    The Ascot handiwork will be on show at the racecourse following its recent unveiling at London's Royal Academy of Arts.

    It took Mach about two months to make, a painstaking process in patience of leafing through thousands of Ascot-related images.

    "Basically an agency approached me via Ascot first asking me to put together a collage together, which is what I do anyway, so in some ways it was my idea anyway," he says.

    "Actually the whole conversation was pretty funny. I'd never been asked to do a collage with a dress code.

    "It was a bit like dressing dollies, really. In some cases a face might be right but the body not, so it was a case of being clever to match the right look for the entire picture. There's a danger that it can be quite stiff, but what I was looking for was an exact moment in time on pause."

    So how did he narrow it down to just 200 pictures? "That wasn't easy as obviously the people at Ascot had clear ideas of what they wanted included and I was like, 'You want the whole f***ing universe but it's only five feet by four!' "

    Mach has never been afraid to be bold with his art. A sculptor and installation artist previously nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize, he has produced a myriad of artwork including heads of famous people such as Ghandi, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe created solely with matchsticks, which he then set alight.

    Then there's Golgotha, three enormous figures of threaded steel nailed to metallic crosses recasting the suffering of Jesus.

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    For his most recent work, Mach has had to rein in his natural, often controversial, instincts.

    "Ascot by its nature is still a bit cheeky -- it's a saucy day -- so there's elements of that in there," he says.

    "But there was also an avoidance of it being at all vulgar on my part. But I think it works, I think it's fun and that it highlights a fun day."

    Mach has since ventured to more abstract work since Ascot. "I'm working on the maddest log cabin you've ever seen," he says.

    "It's like that of the artist Salvador Dali's long-lost cousin Ebenezer Dali -- it's surreal beyond belief, made of huge pieces of driftwood from my local beach in Scotland with a frontier man with a raccoon hat and a Dali mustache."

    It is a leap of faith from the cross section of society that is Royal Ascot in the British summer, an event where 400 helicopters and 1,000 limousines converge each year.

    It's a one-of-a-kind event, one of the few occasions when the public can get close to the Queen on her daily course procession and her walk to the paddock from the stands, an event where the race card is designed to fit into a lady's clutch bag, and the only course in the world with a bell ringing to signify each race reaching the final bend.

    Trying to squeeze all that into one piece of art was no mean feat, Mach admits.

    "I absolutely love being British and this is Britain at its best isn't it?" he says, although less as a question and more a statement of fact.

    "I get quite emotional discussing that. Horse racing is a sport that combines and consumes us all at the same time. It's over the top and celebratory. It's Britain at its can-do best."

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