The Bitchpack of the Meath Foxhounds signed and dated 'Jno Emms/1896' (lower right) oil on canvas 43 3/4 x 62 in. (111.2 x 157.5 cm.)
PROVENANCE: with Hahn Fine Art Galleries, London; Private collection, USA.
It is rare for a work of this size and presence to appear at auction. Indeed the last picture of similar dimensions and of this quality, was sold by Bonhams in February 2006 when it achieved a world record price. The present lot was painted two years earlier in 1896, at a time when Emms was at the peak of his career.
A keen huntsman with a consummate interest in the sporting field, Emms had the rare ability to give real life to his subject. He was at his very best when painting dogs; with confident use of fluid brushstrokes he gives weight and solidity to their different physical characteristics as well as their individual temperaments. We know from contemporary accounts how Emms used to walk to the kennels everyday and return to his studio with one hound after another as he undertook preliminary sketches in working up to the overall comoposition.
John Emms was born on April 21st 1841 at Blofield, Norfolk, he was the son of Henry William Emms an amateur artist. Emms had two brothers and a sister, the eldest of which married the brother of Sir William Richmond P.R.A. Like all aspiring artists, Emms traveled to London where he became an assistant to Frederic, Lord Leighton P.R.A. It was through Leighton that Emms first visited Lyndhurst when he assisted the former to paint a fresco in Lyndhurst Parish Church. He then made his debut at the Royal Academy in 1866 and proceeded to exhibit elsewhere at the British Institution, Royal Society of British Artists and the New Watercolour Society.
In 1872 he returned to Lyndhurst where his skill in portraying animals, particularly dogs as well as his participation in the hunting field and convivial nature led to no want of patrons. The Victorian gentleman's love of his horse and dog led to many other commissions including one from the Duke of Newcastle to paint his Clumber spaniels and from other dog owners to depict their Crufts winners. In 1880 Emms married Fanny Primmer, daughter of a local Lyndhurst gentleman. Soon after their marriage he was working in London but returned in about 1881 to Lyndhurst where he built a large house and studio in Queen's Road.
Emms cut a flamboyant figure, always dressed in a long black cloak and matching wide brimmed hat, he and his family led a somewhat bohemian life. When times were good, after selling a painting, he would take Fanny, their three daughters and son up to London to stay in the best hotels and live life to the full. But times were not always good. During the early 1900's Emms suffered a stroke and was unable to work; as a result he took to heavy drinking and the family's finances went from bad to worse. He died in November 1912 aged 71 and is buried in Lyndhurst cemetry.
Hunting with Hounds is a tradition in Ireland that goes back to ancient times and features strongly in Celtic literature and legend. There is a pack recorded in the Meath area as early as 1723; the earliest record shows that a Mr Nicholson of Balrath, kept a pack of foxhounds at that time and hounds were kept by the Nicholson family until the beginning of the 19th century. Mr Lowther and Mr Hopkins also kept packs.
Historically, the most important hunting establishments in Co. Meath were those of Mr Pollock of Mountainstown, and Mr Gerrard of Gibbstown. In 1813 Messrs Pollock and Gerrard joined packs with kennels at the Castle of Clongill, as the Clongill Hunt, with a subscription, Mr Pollock being Master. At first the Clongill hunted only the north end of the country, but by degrees absorbed the whole. In 1817 the Clongill Hunt became the Meath Hunt. The "Dublin" country, practically speaking, was made by Mr S. Reynell. During the War part of the country was lent to the Louth and Ballymacad Hunts, an arrangement which is still partly in operation today. At the time the picture was painted, the famous John Watson was Master, his mastership spanning 1891 to 1908.