A life of his own

There is a glaring flaw in the exhibition of Sir Alfred’s works Munnings (1878-1959) which has just opened at the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket – and that is its lamentable brevity, ending as early as June 12. makes a long holiday weekend to celebrate not only a royal jubilee, but also national culture and (through the Derby and the Lord’s Test) sporting tradition.

In the words of John Masefield, engraved on the epitaph of Munnings in St. Paul’s Cathedral: “O my friend, how beautiful things are/English things, you have helped us to perceive them.” It is a measure of the length of the monarch’s reign that one of the last commissions executed by Munnings, which is not actually part of this wonderful display, was that of the young queen with her best racehorse, Aureole, before the 1954 Coronation Cup at Epsom, almost a year to the day after her own coronation. And to many admirers, Munnings will forever preserve the quintessence of an England never found again: pastoral, sporting and very beautiful.

Even in his time Munnings was a bulwark of tradition, with a notorious distaste for the artistic experimentation of contemporaries. His own modernity was limited to the designation of “British Impressionist”, and instead he continued an indigenous tradition as our greatest equestrian painter since Stubbs.

So while this time of year can be busy for Newmarket’s professional community, its members must beg, borrow or steal all the time they can to seize this quietly historic opportunity right on their doorstep. After all, some of the exhibits on display in “A Life of His Own” have never been released to the public.

What a piece of living history, for example, is the depiction of Humorist and Steve Donoghue being driven down the track of the 1921 Derby, on loan from a private collection. In his autobiography Munnings remembers doing a survey of the horse in Charles Morton’s yard on a sunny Sunday shortly after his success as a planned race at Royal Ascot was scrapped after he burst blood vessels at a gallop. Munnings and Morton then shared a few bottles of the celebratory champagne sent to Letcombe Bassett by Humorist owner Jack Joel, and after lunch the entertainer succumbed to the shade of a yew tree on the lawn. The next thing he knew was that he was woken up by Morton’s ‘pretty little wife – much younger than him – looking like Ophelia in Hamlet, wringing her hands’ and screaming that the comedian was dead .

Then Morton himself appeared, his composure undiminished by either champagne or the death of a Derby winner. He said Munnings to follow him into the yard for “a sight you won’t see again as long as you live”. He opened the door of the stand of the comedian, and there he was lying in the straw, one eye still open. There was blood everywhere. “Well,” his trainer said softly. “There are fifty thousand pounds of value!”

Yet today we retain the priceless privilege of seeing the horse preserved in its vital glory by one of the great eyes that ever united artist and rider. Munnings invited Donoghue to his Chelsea studio to complete his prepared study of Humorist, sitting him on a wooden stand in the famous black silks and scarlet cap; and then he made a social document of the background, with newspapers blown across the lawn and a crowd wedged between rails, tents and bookmakers’ signs.

This exhibition, expertly curated by Katherine Field for the British Sporting Art Trust, based at Palace House, includes some 40 works, not only oils but also watercolours, drawings and sculptures, covering 60 years of the career of the artist, from recording the East Anglian country life of his youth to the presidency of the Royal Academy. They incorporate samples of every step in between: Canadian cavalry at war, the hunting field, the landscapes, the pageantry.

But Turf aficionados will particularly appreciate the social documentation incidental to all this timeless art – like, for example, the 1938 twin portrait of the breed-shaping stallions Hyperion and Fairway for the 17and Earl of Derby, their grooms completing the serenity and veracity of the scene in the manner of Stubbs; or the casually dressed, hatless riders following their galloping dapper guv’nor against a summer sky of high clouds.

Munnings did much of this work in a converted studio at the last rubbing house on the moor, a remote outpost near the end of Devil’s Dyke, working “in perfect silence but to the songs of the larks” . Here he consented to a final racehorse portrait in 1951, having given up such commissions after learning from Sun Chariot some years before, “for the last time, the madness of trying to paint racehorses “. What a blessing that it took him so long to discover this madness, and not just for the city that welcomes him back into its midst for the next few days.

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