This wonderfully atmospheric painting shows H.M. The Queen with her racehorse Aureole in the paddock before his victory in the Coronation Cup at Epsom at the Derby meeting, 1954. Standing alongside the Queen is her racehorse trainer, Captain Cecil (later Sir Cecil) Boyd-Rochfort (1887-1983), and in front the jockey (Eric) Eph Smith (1915-1972), wearing the crimson, purple and gold silks and black cap that make up the royal colours.
The Coronation Cup first took place in 1902 to celebrate the accession to the throne of King Edward VII, the Queen’s great-grandfather. The race in 1954 was particularly resonant as it was run almost exactly on the anniversary of H.M. The Queen’s own Coronation which had taken place at Westminster Abbey on Tuesday 2 June 1953. That day approximately three million people had lined the streets of London to catch a glimpse of the new Queen being driven through the city in the magnificent Gold State Coach, whilst street parties were held up and down the length of the country and around the world. For the first time the people of Britain had been able to watch their monarch’s coronation in their own homes as the young Queen had defied the arguments of her Government and insisted that the ceremony be broadcast. Four days after her Coronation, the Queen had been at Epsom to watch Aureole come second to Pinza in the Derby.
The following year, however, Aureole was triumphant. Joined again by Boyd-Rochfort and her racing team, as well as her mother and sister, Princess Margaret, Her Majesty stood in the Paddock at Epsom alongside other owners (fig. 1), the scene depicted in Munnings’ painting. She then watched the race from the Royal Box as Aureole won the race by five lengths. This was followed by wins at the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot, and in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot in July 1954, a race the Queen had named after her parents.
Aureole was the Queen’s most successful racehorse, and earned her the position of leading owner in 1954, winning four out of his five races. A bright chestnut with a white blaze and three white socks, he was sired by Hyperion, the Derby and St Leger winner in 1933 and a leading sire. His dam Angelola, second in the 1948 Oaks and winner at the Yorkshire Oaks, also came from a royal line of breeding. Aureole was bred by King George VI, the Queen’s father and, being temperamental and excitable, was known to have relished chasing stud staff around his field as they tried to retrieve him for stabling in the evenings. He was trained by Captain Boyd-Rochfort at Freemason Lodge Stables in Newmarket, and became a champion sire in 1960 and 1961.
A larger example of this subject was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1957 (no. 148) and presented by Viscount Astor to the Queen. The importance of the commission led Munnings to produce a number of preparatory studies: a study for the figure of the Queen was sold in these Rooms on 15 June 2011 (lot 70, fig. 2); and a study for the Queen with surrounding figures is at the Munnings Museum, Dedham. A version similar to the present work, and of the same dimensions, but without the Queen, was exhibited by James Green in the Bond Street Galleries in December 1956 where it sold for £1,500. The proceeds were donated by Munnings towards the purchase of Gainsborough’s birthplace in Sudbury (now Gainsborough’s House Museum), a typically generous gesture of Munnings’ in honour of his much-admired predecessor. That picture was sold again at Sotheby’s, New York, on 11 April 1997 (lot 199).
Sir Alfred Munnings became the greatest British equestrian painter since George Stubbs in the 18th Century. He was born in Mendham in Suffolk in 1878 and, after an apprenticeship as a lithographic print maker, he attended the Norwich School of Art. After early success at the Royal Academy in 1899 he continued to pursue his chosen career, initially depicting racing, hunting and rural scenes in East Anglia and Cornwall. During World War I he became a war artist assigned to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade in France, but after the war he focussed primarily on equestrian portraits and racing scenes. His pictures possess a natural versatility and brilliance that reaches far beyond the sporting arena. He was passionate about this subject and, like most of the French Impressionists, preferred to paint en plein air, which gives his works a natural spontaneity. Upon his election in 1944 as President of the Royal Academy, a critic wrote: ‘Call him a sportsman and a painter if you will, but not a ‘sporting painter’, for he is a painter of light, and there have been very few of them. To the vast majority of painters, light is what one sees by. To those few, light is what one sees’ (S.C. Kaines Smith, ‘The New P.R.A., 1944, Sir Alfred J. Munnings’, The Studio, July 1944, p. 46).
The work illustrates Munnings’ skill at capturing racing scenes with incredibly dexterity and fluidity. His careful delineation of the central protagonists in the foreground contrasts with the loosely painted sky, creating a sense of energy and excitement. Racing was an enduring subject throughout Munnings’ career, from St Buryan Races (1915, Royal Academy) to late in his career when Munnings was given free access to paint at Newmarket near the starting post. Munnings regularly attended race meetings and was inspired as much by the calm but business-like atmosphere in the paddocks as the explosive energy of the start. Munnings also painted Aureole’s sire, Hyperion, commissioned by his owner Lord Derby in 1937.
For a number of years the painting was owned by John William Warner (b. 1927), a five-term United States Republican Senator from Virginia between 1979 and 2009. In 1957 he married Catherine Conover Mellon, the step-daughter of the notable art collector Paul Mellon, with whom he had three children. They divorced in 1973, and in December 1976 he married the actress Elizabeth Taylor. They had met on 8 July 1976 at a British Embassy Ball held in Washington in honour of Queen Elizabeth II whom they were photographed with. Both loved horses and at Warner’s home, Atoka Farm, Middleburg, Taylor joined Warner in keeping and breeding horses for riding and racing.
We are grateful to David Oldrey for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.