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Image for the news item 'A Gift Horse (always look in the mouth)' on 12 Jan 2021
Left: The Bronco Buster. Right: Professor J. Frank Dobie at Emma in 1944

On a window sill in the Gallery, surrounded by portraits of stern-faced early college Puritans and Platonists, sits a most incongruous work of art: a large bronze statuette of a rearing mustang trying to unseat its rider. The sculpture is a casting of ‘The Bronco Buster’, perhaps the most famous bronze produced by Frederic Remington (1861-1909), an artist celebrated for his evocative paintings, drawings and sculptures on the theme of the American Wild West. Inevitably Remington’s art has been subject to recent revisionism, but there is no denying his surpassing technical skill.

‘The Bronco Buster’ was a gift to the college from J. Frank Dobie, a convivial Texan who lived at Emmanuel for more than a year after being appointed Visiting Professor of American History in 1943. Dobie was very popular with Fellows and students alike, enduring with good humour the meagre rations and freezing rooms of the wartime college (although he frequently sought refuge, with other dons, in the toasty warmth of The Anchor). After his return to the USA he looked around for a suitable gift to send Emmanuel in token of his ‘deep and abiding’ gratitude, and chose Remington’s sculpture because, as he explained to the college, the ‘cowboy riding a pitching horse…has plenty of animation and represents something that I belong to and something that belongs to America’. The bronze arrived at London Docks shortly before Christmas 1946, all costs having been pre-paid by Dobie, according to the New York agents who had organized the shipment. The college blithely requested that the statuette be forwarded to Cambridge immediately, but HM Customs & Excise had other ideas, and a lengthy war of words ensued.

The nature of the gift was crucial, for ‘commercial’ products were subject to duty and purchase tax, whereas ‘Works of Art’ and antiques might in some cases be exempt. Emmanuel’s Senior Tutor, Edward Welbourne, made a good case for the bronze’s being considered both a work of art and a museum piece, and threw in for good measure Professor Dobie’s contribution to the War effort and his continuing role in fostering good Anglo-American relations. Even Welbourne’s legendary eloquence, however, could not move the flint-hearted Customs officials, and eventually the college had to concede defeat and fork out not only purchase tax of 100%, but also import duty, port charges and ‘Dock Attention’ fees, which came to a total of £13.14.7, nearly three times the bronze’s estimated value. One of the parties involved observed that ‘the donor would be horrified to know what his present has cost!’, and indeed he was, for although the college would have kept the knowledge from him, matters dragged on for so long that Dobie eventually enquired whether his gift had arrived safely, at which point the college had to come clean. The professor immediately insisted that he should pay all the outstanding charges, but Welbourne replied that it was ‘not at all clear that we shall allow you to remit anything’, and there the matter appears to have rested.

The statuette was finally released by Customs in December 1947, nearly a year after its arrival. There was initially ‘some perplexity’ as to where it should be placed, but a window recess in the Gallery was adjudged suitable, and the bronze has remained there ever since, for is not a piece to be moved lightly. Professor Dobie paid a return visit to Emmanuel in 1949, and maintained warm relations with the college until his death in 1964. By that time memories of the trouble caused by what Welbourne called the ‘loathsome and absurd purchase tax’ had faded, and the mettlesome bronco had become, and remains, a genuinely welcome gift horse.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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