Munnings painted racing pictures in the inter-war years and then after World War II, he increasingly focused on this subject, undertaking both steeplechasing and flat racing scenes. 'The Start' was one of his favorite compositions and he included either a finished "start" painting or a group of "start" sketches in nearly every exhibition of his work from 1940 until his death. As he turned away from the formal portraits that had been the heart of his work in the years before World War II, he concentrated ever more intently on the difficult task of capturing the excitement of the racecourse and spent an extraordinary amount of time studying his subject at first hand. Munnings' home, Castle House, in Dedham was close to Newmarket, the heart of racing in England, so he could go their regularly to watch horses at exercise, or to attend races during the season. Courtesy of the clerk of the course, he even had a studio in one of the rubbing down houses and was allowed to bicycle around the grounds to view the runners.
Since he was not a betting man, Munnings would often use his race card for his sketches at the races or at the exercise sessions on Warren Hill. Munnings' last volume of his memoirs, The Finish, published in 1952, is not only filled with illustrations of the varied moments before a start, but also describes some of the antics performed by eager horses that are captured so eloquently in the present work: 'Some horses more restive than others - dancing sideways, capering, rearing, bounding - dashed off in pursuit of those ahead. For me the visible beauty was over all too soon. What book did I fill with hundreds of drawings and notes! My mind and brain were saturated with the subject' (op. cit., p. 181).
Munnings' primary focus in the present work is the movement of the horses and his selection of a long thin panel accentuates the sense of tension. The compressed and tight energy of the horses at the left is emphasized by the sense of space in the right half of the composition - our eyes are drawn to the right and we are given an illusion of the impending movement of the horses. This technique can also be seen in At the Start of a Steeplechase (A.J. Munnings, The Finish, Bungay, 1952, ill. after p. 216) which has approximately the same dimensions. The elongated composition was also very effective in conveying the bursting energy of the horses in Early Morning - Newmarket, exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1950, which measured 6 ft. by 2 ft. (op. cit., ill. opp. p. 208). In the present work, Munnings also employs color to accentuate the sense of movement by repeating the reddish-pink tones of the jockeys' colors on the left in the smaller group in the far distance which draws the eye across the composition.
The sense of movement is further reinforced by Munnings' depiction of the action in a progressive sequence. A calm horse is seen to the left, the center horse lowers his head and strains at the bit, pulling the jockey forward, while the third horse is on the verge of bolting. His weight is on his hind end as the upraised front legs prepare to surge forward, and he has added blinkers which reinforces the idea that he is a nervous and unruly horse. Munnings has also created a sense of theater and tension in his depiction of the sky. With swift brushstrokes, he contrasts the grey sky with white clouds that are accentuated with impasto to catch glimpses of sunshine and blue as they race across the sky.
The theme of temperamental and precocious horses was not new to Munnings and his earliest example, painted in 1907, shows his favorite horse, Augereau trying to remove his rider (ill. in A.J. Munnings, The Second Burst, Bungay, 1951, after p. 193). He returned to this theme many times and, almost crippled with gout at the end of his life, he painted one of his most well-known works depicting this subject entitled The Runaway.
This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Sir Alfred Munnings being prepared by Lorian Peralta-Ramos.