The family of saddlemakers, known popularly today as “Victorino,” has a remarkable history as crafters of the finest handmade saddlery in Portugal.
By Teresa Burton. Photos by Lena Saugen
This history dates back to before the 1920’s when Victorino de Sousa Mendes, born into a family of saddlers and already well known for his harness making, was in charge of ‘Correaria Abreu Chiado’, a harness making firm and supplier to the Royal Household.
Correaria Abreu Chiado’s direct competitor, a well-known harness/saddlery company owned by Júlio Alves Salgado named ‘Correaria Salgado’ then recruited Victorino to manage their shop located in a street called ‘Rua dos Correeiros’ in the heart of Lisbon.
Rua dos Correeiros was very much the home for craftsmen and harness makers, even before the beginning of the century, when the original medieval villages were filled with craft shops. So it was very fitting for Victorino, a skilled craftsman, to find himself in such a historic and appropriate location.
Victorino was new to the increasingly modern industry, but he soon adapted, proving to be an expert at designing and making innovative tools and moulds for the trade. In fact, Victorino designed specialist tools for every individual step of making the harnesses. (These unique tools are still used today by his grandson José de Sousa, about whom we will soon talk).
Eventually, with his increasing success Victorino formed his own family firm, Victorino de Sousa Lda’, which employed 10 people. They specialised in supplying the domestic market with top quality handmade harnesses, using only the very best leathers and fittings. The refinement and quality of his work led him to become internationally renowned, to eventually win the gold medal for harness making at the 1923 International Contest of Rio de Janeiro.
Victorino’s son, Victorino de Mendes Sousa Junior, was set to ensure another generation of this family of harness makers. From the age of 12 years, young Victorino Junior began learning the art from his father. He quickly developed the same skill and passion for the craft, eventually showing himself to be as skilled as his father.
Victorino de Mendes Sousa Junior was dedicated to the family business and this led him to make a significant contribution to developing another exciting business avenue. It was with the advent of the ever-increasing use of automobiles that replaced the formerly horse-drawn transportation systems that the company began to suffer. Victorino de Sousa Lda was forced to revaluate their market and expand their craft into new areas in order to survive. They had to adapt to the ‘new world’.
This talented young Victorino Junior designed and crafted a ‘new’ saddle and bridle for mounted bullfighting. His innovative modern design was very much admired by Mestre João Branco Núncio, considered by most to be the greatest-ever rider and bullfighter. Mestre Núncio chose to use the new revolutionary tack in his shows. Naturally, as a result, other bullfighters wanted the same and the orders came in, taking the company’s fame to greater heights and diversifying the business.
Some of the firm’s customers included other famous bullfighters such as Simão da Veiga, Alfredo Conde, Manuel Conde, Luís Miguel da Veiga, Emidio Pinto and José Zoio. Victorino Junior created unique designs for them all, adorned with silver buckles, crests, fancy stitching and wonderful colours.
Victorino Senior died at the age of 57 years, but by then his son was very much able to take up the reins of the business and with so many extra skills, he began making saddles and bridles for some of the most famous riders and horsemen worldwide. His specialist saddle and bridle designs were world-acclaimed and his products so prized he came to be seen as ‘The Expert Saddler’ in Portugal.
His talent wasn’t confined to the world of bullfighting and the design of famous pieces. Victorino Junior had a very special client who visited his workshop…Mestre Nuno de Oliveira. The great modern-day classical master ordered a saddle to be designed that was aptly named “Nuno Oliveira”. This modern-style dressage saddle model was created in the 1960’s, and still today is being completely hand-made for local and international clients. [The original “Nuno Oliveira” saddle and rolled leather bridle in brown leather are now in the possession of the son of Victorino Junior, Jose de Sousa. They are so soft and supple that their quality is as good now as when they were first made 50 years ago.]
Victorino Junior went on to design saddlery for many other famous riders, politicians and royalty. Álvaro Domeq, founder of the Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre (Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art) in Jerez, Spain, admired Victorino’s work so much that he had all the equipment and harness for the Escuela designed and made by him and it is still used today.
The Duke of Edinburgh was awarded one of Victorino’s Portuguese saddles. Oswaldo Pirow, Prime Minister of South Africa, ordered a saddle studded with silver. In 1976 a saddle made by the Victorino company was presented to the Venezuelan Head of State, by President Ramalho Eanes. More recently, President Mário Soares introduced, King Hassan II, to the celebrated firm and its products.
Victorino Junior’s son, José, followed the deep family tradition and started his training at the same age as his father – 12 years old. He keenly learnt his father’s and grandfather’s crafts, sharing their passion that passed the family skills from generation to generation.
Today, José continues hand-making the fine Victorino saddlery with all the original tools and moulds made by his grandfather, and he too has made bridles and saddles for clients all over the world. Among other important accomplishments, he designed the stunning saddlery for the Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre (Portuguese School of Equestrian Art) in Lisbon.
José continued to run the old shop in Rua dos Correeiros until the he was forced to close it when a large company came and bought all the buildings in the area and today, José works close to his home. The hallmark stamp of VS is still on his 100% work and is sought after internationally, whether for his standard inventory models or his stunning custom pieces.
Sadly, José is the last in the family line to have this skill…no son follows on to pick up the work and continue it into the next generation…but Victorino is still a family “affair”. José’s wife Cristina, herself a legendary seamstress who sews magnificent costumes for bullfighters and other famous personalities, is very involved in the Victorino business. She assists in choosing the fine leathers, contributes to new designs, and looks after clients. You will find her at José’s side where the Victorino collection can be seen at the Golegã National Lusitano Horse Fair in November every year.
The Bits and Buckles
All the hardware—buckles, bits and other accessories—used on the Victorino products are designed by Victorino and some, notably the bits for the Portuguese School of Equestrian Arte, have been designed by José de Sousa. The production involves a long, very detailed process. Every piece is designed on paper and drawn from each angle, with all the necessary detail. When any new item design is finished, a new mould of the hardware (whether it be the decorated sides of the bit, the bit mouthpiece, or a buckle or other ornamentation) has to be made for each design.
The Victorino hardware designs are cast with brass or a metal alloy called Alpaca, in Portuguese. Alpaca is a metal blend composed predominantly of copper. There is a long tradition that the Alpaca alloy causes a chemical reaction in the horse’s mouth, stimulating saliva, which aids in relaxing the horse.
The Victorino bits are rare pieces, limited to be hand-made to order. What’s more they can be personalised with your own choice of design on the sides, such as your stud brand, which many breeders favour. There are currently four baroque and classic design styles in the collection. If you look at the photographs you will see they include the design for the crest of the Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre. These bits are vintage and authentic, with modern advancements such as the creating a shorter shank.
Victorino has kept these unique designs and saddlery products in their family for decades. Having one of the Victorino pieces in your tack collection means with doubt that you have sequestered a treasure of the Portuguese equestrian culture.
Where to buy? www.lusitanohorsefinder.com