Dennis O’Kelly and his horse ‘Eclipse’

For those of you who read our recent post ‘The Mysterious Marriages of Thomas Nelson you may have noticed the name Charlotte Hayes aka O’Kelly, well, for those who didn’t, Charlotte was a very successful brothel keeper, who co-habited (for there seems to be no proof that they married) with a gentleman by the name of Dennis O’Kelly, with whom they had one child Mary Charlotte.

Much has been written about O’Kelly, so we won’t re-tell the alleged story of his life as much more can be found by following this link, but suffice it say that he was born around 1725 in Ireland, moved to London where he became a sedan chair carrier, but found fame and wealth courtesy of horse racing. He as reputed to be quite a character – Mr, Captain, Major or Colonel, a disreputable adventurer.

Dennis O'Kelly ('The Eclipse Macarony') published by Matthew or Matthias Darly, after Richard St George Mansergh St George etching, published 12 May 1773. Courtesy of NPG
published by Matthew or Matthias Darly, after Richard St George Mansergh St George, etching, published 12 May 1773. Courtesy of NPG

Whilst reading about him, however, we came across several caricatures of him and one cameo, but then we came across a portrait of him in a 1932 newspaper, which states that the portrait was painted by Johan Zoffany which seems curious as it doesn’t appear to have been recorded anywhere so far as we can tell – so perhaps one of our lovely art historians may be able to shed some light as to its validity and possible location now. Whether the newspaper got their facts correct, who knows – possibly ‘fake news’, as it appears was this report about Charlotte having inherited the horse ‘Eclipse’.

Leeds Intelligencer 29 May 1770

A morning paper says, a Gentleman of the Turf, who died lately of a fit of the stone, has left his fortune, which is very considerable to the celebrated Charlotte Hayes; among this is his horse Eclipse.

There seems no other mention of Charlotte having had any part in the purchase of the horse, every source we have checked states that O’Kelly purchased him from his owner, William Wildman, a meat salesman of Newgate market, in two stages, 650 guineas in June 1769 and a further 1,100 guineas April 1770.

The only possibility could be that she did invest some of the money she apparently was left by Samuel Derrick, who died March 1769, but there were mixed rumours as to whether he actually left any money of where he died penniless, so who knows what the truth is.

Colonel Dennis O'Kelly by Johann Zoffany
Colonel Dennis O’Kelly by Johann Zoffany (image reproduced in the Illustrated London News, 4th June 1932).

O’Kelly became what today we would regard as nouveau riche as a result of his knowledge of horses and gambling made a small fortune and bought the famous horse ‘Eclipse’.

Eclipse, bred in 1764 by the Duke of Cumberland.
Eclipse, bred in 1764 by the Duke of Cumberland. Charles Hunt after George Stubbs.
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

‘Eclipse’ was born 1764 and named after the solar eclipse that occurred on April 1st of that year. It seems that the horse could not be beaten and won 18 races and was then put out to stud and appears in the pedigree of most modern thoroughbreds. So, we thought we would take a look at some of the many paintings of him.

Portrait of Eclipse in a landscape with Mr William Wildman and his sons by George Stubbs
Portrait of Eclipse in a landscape with Mr William Wildman and his sons by George Stubbs (image reproduced in The London Illustrated News, 4th June 1932).
Eclipse with her mother Spiletta
Eclipse with her mother Spiletta

O’Kelly died December 28th, 1787 and Eclipse died February 26th, 1789. Upon the death of O’Kelly, Charlotte was left well provided for in his will, but despite all her acquired wealth towards the end of her life, she found herself back in the debtors prison. Charlotte died in unknown circumstances in 1813.

Featured Image

‘Eclipse’ by John Nost Sartorius (1759–1828), National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art

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