Munnings Exhibit In Newmarket Shows Fervor Of A Great Artist

Sir Alfred Munnings simply could not stop sketching. Racing programs, menus, backs of envelopes, margins of letters were all fair game for a few strokes of his pencil or pen. He had sketchbooks, of course, but they weren’t enough to contain the veracity of his perfectionism. Like many famous artists, the man known as one of the most successful painters of Thoroughbreds never seemed to be able to quiet his hands – or his mind.

“One of the things that becomes really clear about Munnings as an artist is the degree to which he is practicing and practicing and practicing to get it right,” said Chris Garibaldi, director of the National Horseracing Museum at Palace House. “Sketching is an absolutely essential part of his process. He was obviously a bit obsessive. He couldn’t stop himself sketching on absolutely everything.”

A select sampling of Munnings’ work is part of a temporary exhibit at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art in Newmarket, England, now through April 13, 2018. Titled ‘Painting Winners,’ the exhibition focuses on Munnings’ equestrian work toward the later part of his career, when he’d returned to the wispy, impressionistic style he favored at the start of his career.

Born in 1878 in Mendham, Suffolk, Munnings grew up on a farm and attended the Norwich School of Art while apprenticing with a printer designing advertisements (some of his early work advertising bicycles is also on display at the museum). He eventually became best known for rural and equestrian scenes and made his living on commissioned portraits of prized racehorses. These are highly realistic and flattering, with a feel of conformation photographs bound for a stallion register.

“He attracted criticism in his day for being almost too highly finished,” said Garibaldi. “The phrase in the Oxford Dictionary of Artists is ‘slick and repetitive, and his continued popularity is more with lovers of horses and the countryside than with lovers of painting.’ But of course, what he was trying to do was produce a very photogenic image for patrons who wanted to show off their finest horses.”

Such paintings commanded £500 in the mid-1900s, or roughly $40,000 in today’s currency.

When he had the chance to paint for himself, however, Munnings focused on detailed scenes capturing different parts of the race day. He almost never painted the race itself (Garibaldi knows of just one such work) but preferred to show the crowd gathering around the paddock, or the parade ring afterwards. The start of the race was his favorite subject, despite (or because) of the challenge in trying to accurately capture the moments of high tension as equine muscles tensed before they sprung forward into their first strides. As a horseman himself, he was challenged by the need to depict the horse accurately. In fact, Munnings was known to have studied carefully the work of predecessor George Stubbs, whose quest to represent a horse’s conformation led him to dissect them and produce an equine anatomy book in 1766 showing the bones and ligaments previously invisible beneath the skin.

“It’s really easy to paint horses badly,” said Garibaldi. “It’s really difficult to paint them well. You can see this stuff and think it must have come naturally to him. It did, but he worked incredibly hard on it.”

One of Munnings’ commissioned portraits depicting a horse called Rich Gift

The National Heritage Centre’s exhibition shows the evolution of Munnings’ style – from a looser, less formal style at the start of his career, to the highly finished paintings he did for paid clients, and back to the scenes of the race day he focused on in the 1940s and 1950s toward the end of his life. By then, his revenue stream was established enough he could suit himself in his spare time.

In paddock scenes, Munnings shows the crowd streaming into Epsom before the start of a race day, or ladies and gentleman in the saddling enclosure. Often a couple of figures are painted ‘in focus’ with others slightly wispier, colorful but more impressionistic suggestions. One figure is dashed by a few quick strokes of a brush or pen that imply a pair of half-moon spectacles, though a viewer of the painting can only really notice them when standing a few paces back.

Although Munnings is one of the best-known painters of British sporting scenes today, he’s not a tortured Van Gogh type who failed to garner appreciation until after his death. He was elected president of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1944, the same year he was knighted. While private patrons paid great sums for his commissions, the paintings he did for himself were appreciated, too; after his death in 1959, his widow turned their home in Dedham into a museum of his work, which is still in operation today. One of his pre-race scenes, The Red Prince Mare, brought $7,848,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2007.

Munnings is something of a local legend in Newmarket, where he drove up for a few days at a time from his home an hour away. He stayed in the same guest house when he visited, and the museum displays a few Munnings letters donated from a friend of Mrs. Kate Howard, who ran the guest house, one of which outlines his preference for dinner. Visitors to the exhibit, Newmarket locals and other racing industry people, claim to have spotted family members in the background of a few Munnings paintings on display.

During his life, Munnings was granted the unusual privilege of being given a studio in a small building formerly used as a rubbing down house on the Newmarket training grounds. He would settle in on Warren Hill, the famous uphill grass gallops just outside town, at the start of training hours and begin sketching. Track officials at Rowley also allowed him to trek alongside the horses to the start of the race, racing program in hand, to try once more to capture the magic of the moment.

One of Munnings’ many works set in Newmarket, titled ‘Coming off the Heath’

“In a sense that’s where he’s symptomatic of a great artist, in that he’s never satisfied, he’s always trying to improve,” said Garibaldi. “I would have thought the challenge of it appealed to him. It’s the excitement, the energy. I think it’s that kind of feeling of the coiled spring, that’s what appealed to him artistically. I think it’s really interesting that he doesn’t paint the actual race. It’s the build-up, the energy. You think, ‘Why doesn’t he do the finish of the race?’ But I wonder if it’s a feeling that that’s too obvious, that’s the focus, whereas this is the slightly less obvious part of the day.”

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