Update: The Munnings painting sold for £419,250, or about $552,000.
What you see: A Start at Newmarket, a circa 1937 painting by Sir Alfred Munnings. Christie’s estimates it at £400,000 to £600,000, or $514,400 to $771,600.
The expert: Brandon Lindberg, senior specialist and head of British Impressionism at Christie’s London.
Let’s start by talking about who Munnings was, and when and how he became enchanted with horses. He was born in East Anglia in 1878, the son of a miller. He had a precocious talent for art. He was always drawing from an early age, and he grew up with horses around him. He was born at a time when horses were the main source of transit. They were part of daily life in rural England. He went to the Norwich School of Art, and as a young man, a patron paid for him to go to Paris. His palette had been very brown and rich, but after Paris, his coloring became a lot lighter, brighter, and fresher.
Did he own and ride horses? He would have been around horses, and his family and friends would have had horses. Very early on, probably when he was in his early twenties, Munnings was buying horses and using them to carry his canvases around.
Munnings suffered an accident when he was 20 that blinded him in one eye. How, if at all, did that affect his approach to painting? I think his dog got caught in a hedge and in trying to get it out, he got a thorn in his eye. In his memoirs, he talked about not painting for a while. He found depth tricky without binocular vision. The story is he’d put brushes through the canvas [because he couldn’t judge the depth]. But his personality was so strong that he got over that and battled through.
How prolific was he? I understand that an Alfred Munnings catalogue raisonné is in progress, but do we have a notion of how many works he made during his life? He was incredibly prolific. To give you a guide, a hundred artworks have sold in the last three years alone. There are several thousand works out there. I can’t be more specific than that. Munnings was an inveterate sketcher. He sketched on anything and everything. In the Munnings Art Museum, they have the wall of a stable block. When the plaster was wet, he couldn’t resist drawing horses in it.
Where does Munnings rank among artists who specialize in horses? I would say Munnings is arguably one of the greatest equestrian artists of all time, ranking alongside George Stubbs.
What do we know about the story behind A Start at Newmarket? I take it he is trying to capture as precisely as possible the instant that the horses are released? Exactly. He’s trying to capture that moment when the jockeys are all focused, the split second before the start. You get a sense of the pent-up energy when they’re just about to set off.
What do we know about how the Munnings painting was created? He would have approached it in a number of ways. He was given free reign on the course at Newmarket. He would have been allowed to drive his car onto the course, and he would have been allowed to loiter and capture the moment when they start. And he was given a rubbing-down house–a windowless small stable where they rub a horse down after a race–as a little studio. For a start, he would use pencil sketches, because he had to capture the moment in a few seconds. He also had a dressing-up box of jockey silks, and had one of his grooms don silks and sit on an abandoned block to do for [simulate] a horse for an oil sketch. The work looks effortless, but it’s a complex fusing of various different techniques–sketches, studio studies, and plein air [painting or sketching outdoors].
Did he ever rely on photographs to create his paintings? No. It’s interesting. It reminds me of the only painting he did of the finish of a race. A patron’s horse, Saucy Sue, won the Oaks [a significant English horse race]. He did that painting from a photo, and it doesn’t have the life and energy of the start pictures.
But Munnings would have known of the running horse pictures taken by Eadweard Muybridge for Leland Stanford, yes? He would have known of them, but he didn’t use cameras to take pictures of a start.
Was Munnings aware of the horse-racing paintings done by Edgar Degas? We think he would have been. Munnings had an interesting relationship with avant-garde art. He didn’t like abstract or non-representational art, but he experimented with color and movement. I would love to know if his library had books on Impressionism. It’s most likely that he saw exhibitions of modern French art when he was there in 1905.
Do Munnings paintings of horse races, and this particular painting, reflect any influence from Degas? I think so, in the sense of the way he captures a cluster of jockeys, and the way the light falls on their silks. A Start at Newmarket has a sense of realism, with the horses jostling each other. It infuses impressions of color, light, and realism with a classical frieze–banks of horses recessing into the distance behind you.
This Munnings painting measures 17 and 5/8 inches by 21 and 1/2 inches. Is that a typical size for him, or is it smaller than usual? He painted on every size and every scale. He seemed to love 20 inches by 24 inches. Those are the ones you see the most of. But he painted in every size. This painting is probably on the smaller side. It’s quite practical to take onto a course and paint.
How does this Munnings painting show his mastery? To me, I think it shows him capturing different lights, and how it reflects off different surfaces. I love the interplay of color, light, and movement. Because it’s a plein air painting, it’s got a sense of movement and spontenaiety.
This Munnings painting is cropped. Do we know what inspired him to crop the compositions of some of his paintings? Munnings did crop things quite regularly. He was not adverse to it. It was a device he used a lot. It gives the painting a very immediate effect, and a slightly photographic feel.
That makes me more surprised that he didn’t rely on photographs. Because he was such an inveterate sketcher, he reached for the pencil instead of the camera.
Did he routinely crop his images of race starts, to amplify the sense of movement? Not really. There are starts that are centered. I think he uses it to great effect here. There are some like examples we’ve had over the years, but some are cropped, and some are not.
Do all Munnings paintings feature horses, or did he paint other subjects? I suppose probably about 30 or 40 percent [of his output], one way or another, are racehorses, whether they’re racing or are portraits. But he was a landscape painter. He loved the English landscape, and he painted a wonderful series of river landscapes. He also spent one year on the Western front in World War I, painting horses, men, and cavalry. Horses are a predominant theme in his work, but it’s not the only one.
Many of Munnings’s most dramatic sporting images are set at Newmarket. How does that affect the value of those works? Are collectors more interested in Munnings paintings that show Newmarket? Not necessarily, no. There are more Newmarkets out there and he produced more great pictures at Newmarket than any other [venue]. And Newmarket is seen as the home of British horse racing. But I think collectors respond to great racing pictures.
What is this Munnings painting like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t quite pick up? I think there are. What strikes me is it has a lovely painterly quality to it. He’s not one of these artists who tries to hide every brush stroke. It’s got thick impasto and thin washes that give the painting an added level that you don’t get in the photo at all.
Why will this Munnings painting stick in your memory? Because it’s a lovely fusion. It’s painted like an oil sketch, with spontaneity and capturing the moment, but it’s a complete painting. You really get a strong sense of his design.
How to bid: The Munnings painting is lot 15 in the Christie‘s London sale titled In The Field – An Important Private Collection of Sporting Art, taking place on December 12, 2019.
Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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