F.H. Ayres is one of the most revered British rocking horse makers, known for their well made and beautiful models that have been loved by generations of children. The company started life as a cabinet makers, established by Edward Ayres in London in 1810. By the 1860s, F.H. Ayres was based at 111 Aldgate, London, producing finely made sporting equipment and wooden toys and games. Rocking horses, however, were perhaps their most popular items, which had their heyday from 1880-1940.
Rocking horses have been popular in Europe since the 17th century, and the earliest known example is a rather intriguing and roughly made elm rocking horse, now in the collection of the V&A. Whilst there is no supporting proof, tradition has it the horse was made for Charles I, who had difficulty walking as a young child. Thought to have been made circa 1610, no matter it’s true owner, it is still a delightful naïve object of exceptional rarity.
The earliest rocking horses were mounted on ‘bow’ stands. However, these were inclined to move around the room and trap little people’s toes as they rocked. A safety stand was introduced in 1880 by Philip Marqua from Cincinnati, which rocked back and forth on a stable, fixed base. It soon became standard throughout the United States and in England.
Over the years F.H. Ayres made a wide variety of models, with bow and spring varieties along with the safety or swing stand. They came in a variety of sizes, and some were ‘extra carved’ with more muscle and leg definition and finer detailed facial features.
Only the earliest models produced were stamped or marked with the maker’s name, although those they made to supply to the likes of Harrods and Selfridges bore the names of these famous retailers. F.H. Ayres rocking horses can, however, be recognised by their distinctive ring around the top of the vertical stand pillars, the finely carved heads with fragile lower jaws, slender legs and well-proportioned bodies with sloping rumps. The company was sold in 1940, and subsequently the new owners produced a few rocking horses which were labelled simply ‘Ayres’.
Today, rocking horses by F.H. Ayres remain highly collectable at auction. Due to the high quality of the construction and fine materials used, many are still surviving. The most desirable rocking horses are those that are in unrestored condition, which are few and far between. However, a superb example was sold recently at Tennants in the Costume, Accessories and Textiles Sale on 19th August for £4,200 plus buyer’s premium.