A Model Horse Collector Ahead of His Time
(Before Breyer, there was Mervis)

By Joan Gilbert
Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles

Crane logo Before Breyer, there was M. B. Mervis! Written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Joan Gilbert.
© copyrighted horse article.
Among the most useful of gifts are the many horse figurines we have to choose from these days. Whether exquisite porcelain or workaday - but still lovely - Breyer plastic, there are breeds, colors, and action enough to provide one ideal for each name on our list. Breyer even offers a new extra-beautiful Christmas themed horse each year, and at any time, barns complete with everything from Dually to hay bales and pet dogs. In whatever medium, today's horse figurines come as individuals, tacked out perfectly to scale, or as teams, harnessed authentically.

Though there have always been horse figurines for those who sought them and could pay the price of the most pleasing, never until the last few decades, has there been wherewithal for such complete collections as we now enjoy. Or has there? In the mid-1940s, according to J.H. Ransom's volume I, a man named M.B. Mervis was hard at work, creating just the collection of horse figurines he wanted. Ransom, unfortunately, saw no need for telling us where Mervis lived or how he earned a living that enabled what must have been an incredibly expensive hobby. Mervis did have a farm called The Oaks, possibly his retirement place, and no doubt some reader will know, from that one clue, much more about Mervis. Maybe some of his heirs still occupy The Oaks.

In any case, his story was laid out in a Volume I article with his byline. Mervis told how, having been reared with horses, the urge never left him, when he saw one, to touch and "make its acquaintance." For a period of twenty years, when he was busy with establishing a business and a family of six children, Mervis was almost out of touch with horses.

When he surfaced, horses and everything that went with them - shows included - was dying out. Mervis realized that to educate his children beyond their riding lessons and family equine recreations, would require creative measures. Mervis explained that he wanted, for himself, as well, more knowledge of horses and what they had meant in our country and the world. He was gratified to see that his children already were kind and responsible with their pets, and that their school and playtime associations were enhanced by what he believed was a generally heightened sensitivity engendered by association with horses.

To further these desirable qualities, Mervis hit on the idea of having a number of horse figurines made, figures faithful to the different breeds and uses of equines. He wanted to be able to show his children, the differences among horses. But when Mervis began seeking his figurines, he found that almost no artisans were producing equines accurately. They were unaware of the differences in conformation and movements, and of the facial expressions and other characteristics that made horses individuals. The available work seemed accurate enough to him on dogs, cattle and wildlife, but he knew how horses should look and could not accept the generic figures that were being produced.

Mervis never explained why he preferred wood over any other material. He did say he traveled thousands of miles and talked with dozens of wood carvers before he found some who seemed to have the ability he sought and - most of all - the temperament to accept his coaching. He said that certain models were shipped back and forth several times between himself and their creators before he felt that they were right.

Mervis' next dream was to have models reproduced in each of the colors characteristic of its breed. He collected many pictures and took many photographs himself to record these details for his artists. He also wanted models demonstrating the gaits and movements characteristic of each breed and he wanted displays of equine emotions. His example was the postures of mares with colts by their sides, "readily showing that the animal is just as attentive to her baby as a human mother." When asked to demonstrate equine emotion, artists must have begun tearing their hair out by the handful! But even in the tiny pictures Ransom gave us, we can see that the models are indeed very life like.

Mervis said that though his collection grew to 455 figurines, his enthusiasm for the project did not diminish nor did that of his children. He said that the more the collection grew, "the more kick I get out of looking at my models and hearing my family discuss horses, their peculiarities and habits."

The inevitable next step was to extend the collection to authentically tacked-up horses of the various breeds, and then to dozens of teams properly harnessed to the great variety of vehicles horses have pulled for humankind over the years. Another group of artisans must have been necessary for this intricate leather work, but Mervis did not share that. It goes without saying that housing this collection became a problem. Mervis said he had filled all the cabinets in his office and he was determined not to "clutter our house with them." Does one detect the voice of a long-suffering wife there? Yet one picture in Ransom's book shows Mervis in his living room with a row of models on the mantel and others on most other horizontal surfaces in sight. Mervis had mentioned his desire to have a room in which to display his collection and it is a little puzzling why an affluent person could not manage this, even an addition to his house if necessary. But he noted with relief that when they moved to the farm, everything was worked out and they were also breeding and raising Arabian horses and Shetland ponies. He was collecting by that time, too, all sorts of fittings, bits, rosettes and such like. He mentioned his special pleasure in the rosettes, ranging from "old style leatherette to the finest silver, to the old fashioned glass, etched with handsome figures." And he soon went into collecting old vehicles, saying "We are adding more all the time." Mervis discussed his pleasure in how well his children and grandchildren rode and cared for their animals, and he said again that he was sure their characters had been shaped for the better by their rich knowledge of equine nature and the species' contributions to our world.

This dedicated man expressed no concern about the safe fate of his collections. No doubt his children had assured him that they would take care of them. He envisioned the horse figures being shown to the public as a "Miniature International Horse Show" under the auspices of some charitable organization. He said this compared well with the vision of a collection that the Louvre in Paris sought, for he had been visited by an artist employed by the French to carry out this plan. The man said he could not find the quality of work that was desired and he encouraged Mervis to feel "that some day my collection may find its way into some similar institution in this country for the interest of the public."

Did it? The all-knowing internet does not tell us...or we don't know how to ask properly. Our best hope must be that his hundreds of lovingly planned models are safe in the hands of descendants who cherish them as much as he did. We will not entertain the idea that anything else could be the case, despite seeing a disquieting ad in one of the old horse magazines. It offered some carved wooden figurines of amazing realism and art "From an internationally famous collection." Surely some reader will enlighten us about M.B. Mervis and his models.

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