Sir Alfred James Munnings P.R.A., R.W.S. (British, 1878-1959)
The Start, Newmarket signed 'A.J.Munnings' (lower right) oil on canvas 46 x 61.5 cm. (18 1/8 x 24 1/4 in.) Painted mid-1930s
PROVENANCE: Mrs. James V. Rank (Bottisham Manor), by whom purchased from the Leicester Galleries exhibition in 1938 Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner Thence by descent Private Collection, U.K.
EXHIBITED: London, Leicester Galleries, possibly no.13 as A Start at the October Meeting, Newmarket, April May 1938
The 'start' of a race, to Sir Alfred Munnings, was the embodiment of the power of the Thoroughbred horse and the suspense associated with racing. Munnings reveals in his memoirs that it was "the groupings, the movement and the colour" that inspired him and never failed to stir his soul and creative vision. "Each start was a fresh picture for me, as they have been, meeting after meeting, year after year" (Sir Alfred Munnings, The Autobiography of Sir Alfred Munnings, The Finish, Museum Press, London, 1952, p.207)
Munnings repeated this theme of escalating tension and excitement in various compositions, sometimes altering the distance from viewer to the scene, or by setting the scene against a full or empty background or by subtly experimenting with the emotional tone, as in the present painting. Munnings' intimate knowledge of equine attitude and movement and of the racing scene itself enabled him to manipulate his compositions to reinforce the pent-up energy that builds before the race.
In The Start, Newmarket Munnings depicts runners lining up for prime position to race, situating the horses and jockeys in ready position, in a seeming moment of calm. However, close examination of this well-thought-out composition reveals key elements that disclose the developing excitement and drama of the forthcoming race.
Firstly, to create the building tension, Munnings has creatively composed the group of figures in a staggered line. This repetition of the rounded forms of the horses' rumps as well as the jockeys' profiles gives the illusion of a time and spatial progression as the horses advance across the scene. The relaxed 'number 2' horse, leading the group, is contrasted with the last horse ('number 9') who appears anxious and ready to bolt, as is evident by its gathered weight, set back on its hind-end. As all equine motion is initiated from the hind legs, it is necessary that a horse collects itself before springing forward. The juxtaposition of these two horses is as if Munnings suggests that this 'number 9' horse could propel the entire group forward. The jockey responds to his mount's anticipated action by deepening his seat in the saddle and tightening the reins while the 'number 2' jockey corresponds to his mount by sitting calmly, back relaxed, with loose reins.
Secondly, Munnings continues to develop the expectant drama by completely isolating the figures from any other visual distraction. He intentionally keeps both sky and landscape bare. This not only focuses the viewer's attention on the figures but this compositional choice elicits a query in the mind of the viewer as to what is happening in this uncluttered scene. The tension, created by this subconscious question in the viewer's perception, is heightened by the asymmetrical composition.
Munnings has arranged the figures moving towards completely empty space within the canvas plane, so that the viewer subliminally anticipates that the horses will soon fill that space. This conventional asymmetrical design, originally a hallmark of Japanese art and adopted by Impressionist painters in the 19th century, was regularly seen in Degas' ballet scenes. To further urge the viewers' eye from left to right and into the empty space, Munnings adds subtle white clouds that begin just over the jockeys' heads and continue forward across the scene, complimenting the flow of motion.
Racing paintings such as this, illustrate Munnings to be a gifted artistic technician with a keen eye for design, in addition to the undisputed genius in capturing light and colour for which he is best known. His extensive insight into equine attitude and movement and his intimate understanding of horsemanship gives his work unquestionable credibility based on factual knowledge that can be appreciated even more by those with a knowledge of horses. Aside from the unfolding spectacle, it is worth stressing that Munnings paints this scene with a portraitist's eye. His extensive study of equine anatomy in Stubbs' Anatomy of the Horse and his insight into horses and riding gained from personal experience, enabled him to identify subtle innuendos and interpret exactly what horses and jockeys are doing, thus composing a painting that is more than a group of riders about to race. Munnings has purposefully kept the highlights of the jockeys' silks and horses' coats subdued rather than adding the sun's gleaming but distracting effects so as to focus the viewer's attention on the atmosphere and emotion of the painting.
Upon close scrutiny of most of Munnings work and superbly illustrated in the present painting, there is much to see beneath what is initially perceived. Munnings' love for racing and the feelings that he derived from it are transposed into his scenes thereby creating an emotional element to his work that is often overlooked.
The Start, Newmarket, was in the collection of the prominent English racehorse owner/breeder J.V. Rank, (1881-1952) whose renowned racing establishment, Druid's Lodge, on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, was home to numerous Flat and National Hunt winners and leading sires in the 1930s and 40s. Rank had commissioned Munnings in 1940 to paint some of his successful winners, Southern Hero, Black Speck and Knight's Armour, all of whom were bred by Rank and then again in 1949 to paint the 1942 Irish Grand National winner, Prince Regent. Munnings also painted a family portrait and a portrait of Mrs. Rank by a swimming pool. This work, The Start, Newmarket, however, is the only known racing picture in the Rank collection that was not commissioned.
Mrs. Pat Rank was also involved in racing and it was she who purchased The Start, Newmarket, from the Leicester Galleries in 1938. Perhaps it was the anticipated tension and drama of racing that Munnings had been able to convey in this painting that captured the attention of Mrs. Rank. It is also possible that it was the purchase of this painting that inspired Mr. Rank to invite Munnings to paint his horses two years later. The colours of the jockeys' silks are not identified but they are those that Munnings often used for non-commissioned racing pictures. Munnings also used many horses from the Rank stables as models as identified by the initials JVR on horse rugs.
This work is a smaller version of October Meeting, Newmarket, that had been in the collection of Anthony de Rothschild but was destroyed in The Blitz during WWII. Perhaps the present work was painted as a first version but Munnings was so satisfied with it that he made only subtle changes to the larger painting (illustrated in The Finish, after p.216). Munnings also chose to illustrate the larger version in his book (A.J. Munnings R.A., Pictures of Horses and English Life (with an appreciation by Lionel Lindsay), Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1939, p.27).
This work will appear in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Sir Alfred Munnings being prepared by Lorian Peralta-Ramos and we are grateful to her for compiling this catalogue entry.