When Don and Fae Allen are at home in Chestertown, they can watch horses galloping and grazing in their own back yard. The Allens' ranch house, which overlooks the Chester River, also overlooks a neighbor's pasture, and Mr. Allen enjoys watching and photographing the beautiful animals in motion or at rest.
At the couple's other home, in the Leisure World retirement community in suburban Silver Spring, the horses are in the living room.
One horse in particular attracts attention: an aristocratic palomino mare with a pale, flowing mane and tail and a ribbon around her neck. Her body is powerful yet elegant, her face gentle yet spirited. And she has a gleaming brass pole through her back. This is Lady Jane, and she has the stylized grace and idealized fairy-tale beauty that characterize the most elegant carousel horses. But she
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has the hard-muscled realism -- right down to the veins on her fine-boned nose -- that make her look almost as alive as the Chestertown horses calmly cropping the grass next to the Allens' fence.
Donald Disney Allen, creator of Lady Jane and a stable-full of other hand-carved carousel creatures, knows horses -- and from an even closer range than the back yard.
"I was born and raised on a farm in Nebraska, and I was on horseback from the time I was 5 years old until I went to college," he says. "A bunch of boys and girls would get together, and each one of us had our own horse. We'd play cowboys and Indians on real horses!"
But Mr. Allen never suspected that horses would one day become a major preoccupation, and that well into his retirement years he would be starting his own company, Carousel Classics.
After 34 years working for the government as a civil engineer, and several more as a consultant, he retired and taught himself to carve. Waterfowl were his first subject; although he admits that his first duck looked a lot like a buzzard, his work eventually got good enough to win prizes at wildfowl festivals and art shows. (He may come by his creativity genetically; his mother was Walt Disney's cousin.)
After 13 years, and literally hundreds of blue ribbons, the master ZTC decoy carver had an unusual request from a customer, who wanted a present for his wife. But he didn't want the usual duck, goose or swan. He wanted a carousel horse.
"I said, 'Well, I don't know anything about carousel horses, but I'd like to have one myself.' So about five years ago I started in and did a year's research, traveling all over the United States looking at carousels and reading about the old-timers."
The carousel, he found, was inspired by Arabic games of horsemanship introduced to Europe by Italian and Spanish crusaders. (In Italian, "carosello" means "little war.") The forerunner of the merry-go-round itself was used for jousting practice in 17th century France. As servants pushed the carousel around, courtiers would develop their aim by spearing rings. This tamer relative of the horseback ring-joust -- Maryland's state sport -- developed into the carousel game of catching the brass ring for a free ride (in decline in these safety-conscious, and litigation-conscious, days).
Although carousels were introduced to the United States in the early 1800s, their artistry did not blossom until the second half of the century. Early carousels were powered by man or mule, and their horses were necessarily small and light. But after Frederick Savage developed a steam-powered version in England in 1860, carousels evolved into what they are today, with several rows of large, fancifully-carved steeds.
European carvers came to this country and established their own carousel companies. Chief among these was Gustav Dentzel, the teen-age son of a German carousel builder, who founded the G. A. Dentzel Company in Philadelphia in 1863. The "Philadelphia" school of carousel carving was noted for a high degree of realism and elegance, with "sweet-faced" horses modeled on delicate Arabians. The horses created by its chief rival, the "Coney Island" school exemplified by such makers as Looff and Stein & Goldstein, were more fantastical and glitzy, with fiercer expressions.
"One thing that's been carried down through the years is that carousel horses are carved as though they've just gotten through running a horse race," Mr. Allen explains. "Their nostrils are open, their eyes are big, the veins are strong, and their muscles are tense and very pronounced. This is not a plow horse."
Mr. Allen not only studied the work of the classic carvers of the "golden age" (approximately 1880 to 1915), but worked with modern-day craftsmen who are in the business of keeping the old horses prancing. In Bristol, Conn., he studied under William R. Finkenstein, who, with a crew of full-time artisans, operates a carousel museum and restoration business.
"I like the approach Bill has," he says admiringly. "He makes you feel that everything he does comes from the heart. The horses, and the carousel art, mean something more than a moneymaking scheme. He really puts himself into it, and that's what I try to do, too."
Mr. Allen has done several restoration projects, and is in the process of restoring a vintage Dentzel beauty that he bought at a Frederick auction -- a rather tedious process, he admits. Making his own horses is a lot more fun, although it's also a time-consuming job, taking up to four months. The head and legs are separately carved from basswood, then connected to ** the hollow body with hidden bolts. This process, which Mr. Allen perfected, makes it
look as if the horse is carved from a single piece of wood. Then the horse is painstakingly painted and fitted out with glass eyes (from a taxidermists' supply company) and a tail made from real horsehair.
Although he was well-versed in carving techniques, Mr. Allen had a lot to learn about putting together a realistic carousel horse. So he took apart an unrestored horse to find out how they go together, and then made blueprints of the various parts.
"It's like building a ship," he says. "If you've got a good blueprint and the right techniques for putting the thing together, it's got to come out right. Being an engineer I'm very meticulous about everything I do -- ask my wife!"
Since taking up the art, Mr. Allen has made horses on commission, as well as a number of full-scale carousel animals designed for himself rather than a particular customer. Most are for sale. One, however, is not: Lady Jane, a Christmas gift for his wife, who was called that by her mother when she was a good little girl.
Because the work is so time- and labor-intensive, and the market so limited, carving and restoring carousel animals is not the kind of job that leads to quick riches. But the art is shaping up as a major collectible. At $5,000 to $6,000 each, Mr. Allen's new horses cost a mere fraction of the $50,000 and up that a top-quality antique horse might bring at auction. The most valuable horses are "standers," the stationary horses that occupy the outside ring of the carousel. They are larger and more richly detailed than the inside "jumpers," and may be decked with ribbons and cabbage roses, flags and cavalry trappings, or fancy suits of armor.
Mr. Allen's creations are inspired by the sweet-faced Arabian standers turned out with such skill a century ago in Philadelphia. But they are not copies -- no two artists would allow their horses to be the same, he says. His horses, like those of the golden age masters, are a seamless blending of anatomy and fantasy.
"A horse is a horse is a horse," he says, "but I can add my own trappings and jazz it up a little bit. You always try to do something that's outstanding, something different and creative. You can do that with the expression of the horse, the personality of the horse, and what you are trying to have that horse share with you -- its warmth, its beauty, its wild energy.
"You start with reality, then you put your dreams into the final product."