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Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959)
Property from a Distinguished European Collector
Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959)

Early Morning on Manton Downs

Details
Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959)
Early Morning on Manton Downs
signed 'A.J. Munnings' (lower right)
oil on canvas
30 x 40 in. (76 x 101.5 cm.)
Painted in 1926.
Provenance
Commissioned by William Waldorf, 2nd Viscount Astor (1879-1952), and by descent.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 27 November 2003, lot 35 (£1,517,600).
with Richard Green, London, where purchased by the present owner.
Literature
L. Lindsay, A.J.Munnings, R.A.: Pictures of Horses and English Life with an Appreciation by Lionel Lindsay, 1927, p. 83, as 'Early Morning on Marlborough Downs', illustrated.
Sir A. Munnings, The Second Burst, London, 1951, pp. 124-125.
Exhibition catalogue, Exhibition of works by Sir Alfred J. Munnings, K.C.V.O., P.P.R.A., London, Royal Academy, 1956, p. 38, no. 305, illustrated.
R. Pound, The Englishman: a Biography of Sir Alfred Munnings, 1962, p. 212.
J. Goodman, AJ -The Life of Sir Alfred Munnings 1878-1959, Norwich 2000 p. 195.
Exhibition catalogue, An English Idyll: a Loan Exhibition of Works by Sir Alfred Munnings, London, Sotheby's, 2001, p. 128, no. 73, illustrated.
P. Mathieu, The Masters of Manton from Alec Taylor to George Todd, London, 2010, illustrated on the cover.
Exhibited
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Exhibition of works by Sir Alfred J. Munnings, K.C.V.O., P.P.R.A., March - June 1956, no. 305.
London, Sotheby's, An English Idyll: a Loan Exhibition of Works by Sir Alfred Munnings, 2001, no. 73.

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Lot Essay

Painted in 1926, at the height of Munnings' career, for William Waldorf Astor II, 2nd Viscount Astor, this picture is one of the artist's finest racing subjects. It depicts the bay filly, Short Story, who had won the Oaks earlier that year, being inspected by Alec Taylor on his grey hack Alberta. Taylor was one the greatest trainers of the century, who was to retire the following year. Munnings relished the opportunity to work for such a patron, and his enthusiasm led him to devise a composition of great subtlety and originality. His exhilaration at painting out of doors on a summer morning, in a landscape he loved - on Manton Downs, near Marlborough, is eloquently described in his confident brushwork and daring use of pure colour to describe reflected light. The various compositional devices that Munnings used were deemed so successful in this picture that he developed them in later compositions, making this a pivotal picture in his oeuvre.

Nicknamed 'The Wizard of Manton', Taylor was the leading trainer in England for seven years in succession, and twelve times between 1907 and 1923: in total he won over half a million pounds in over 1000 victories. His collection of paintings of the winners he trained passed to the Jockey Club in Newmarket and includes a sketch by Munnings of Buchan, sire of Short Story. He is depicted in Early Morning on Manton Downs immediately prior to his retirement in 1927, after he won the St. Leger with Book Law. He trained two Triple Crown winners and in total won twenty one Classics, including two in the 2000 Guineas (Astor's Craig an Eran in 1945), one in the 1000 Guineas (Astor's Winkipop in 1910), two in the Derby and seven in the Oaks (with Astor's Saucy Sue in 1925 and Short Story in 1926). He was renowned as a trainer for his patience and for allowing his horses to mature until the age of three before racing them. This undoubtedly contributed to his success. Both his father and grandfather had been head trainers at Manton.

William Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor (1879-1952) was leading owner in 1925 and 1936, winning over £35,000 and £38,000 respectively in those years. Although he never won the Derby, he came second in five out of seven attempts between 1918 and 1924. He won the Oaks five times between 1917 and 1929 and of over fifty-four wins, almost all were with horses he himself had bred. He had eleven successes in the classic races - the 2000 and 1000 Guineas, the Oaks and the St. Leger, between 1910 and 1945.

Astor commissioned Munnings to memorialise several of his successful racehorses, either depicted in the paddocks at Cliveden, or at Newmarket. These included Saucy Sue after her win in the Oaks in 1925 and a triple portrait of his three mares, Popinjay, Book Law and Plymstock (illustrated in An English Idyll, 2000, p. 153). Book Law by Buchan out of Popingoal was considered to be the best filly ever bred by Astor having won the Coronation Stakes, the St. Leger and second place in the 1000 Guineas and the Oaks. She bred five winners for Astor including Rhodes Scholar who won the Eclipse Stakes.

In total, Munnings painted ten of Lord Astor's mares out at grass, but against his wishes he was persuaded to paint Saucy Sue galloping over the finish, the only work in his oeuvre to depict an actual race (Christie's, New York, 1 June 2001, lot 94, $1,436,000) Lord Astor also commissioned Munnings to paint himself amongst a procession of mares and foals at Cliveden, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1943, no. 63. There existed a considerable sympathy and friendship between Munnings and Astor. Unlike his wife, the formidable Nancy Astor, who took over her husband's seat in the Commons when he succeeded his father in the Lords (thus becoming the first woman to be elected an M.P.), Astor was modest and unassuming, happiest when breeding and racing horses, an enthusiasm he shared with his father, and which he developed while an undergraduate at Oxford.

Short Story (by Buchan, out of Long Suit), the subject of the present work, was very consistent and in addition to winning the Oaks in 1926 was placed in all seven of her classic races. She is seen in profile, a classic artistic convention, which displays her conformation and athleticism, and Munnings has sculpted her form with glimmering highlights made by the early morning sunshine during her exercise on the gallops. Her groom's strong hold on the reins and her ears reveal that the mare is fidgety, perhaps because the exercise lad is adjusting her stirrups or girth on the far side of the saddle. The rug on the ground, another earlier leitmotif, is one Munnings often used and commented upon in his memoirs.

Munnings was a master of composition and this picture illustrates his technical acumen. He has selected a frieze-like arrangement with Short Story set against a background of alternating light and dark bands of colour. This zig-zag adds interest to an unspecific landscape and, if one follows the lines, it terminates at the figure of Short Story. This artistic device of bringing the viewer's focus to the main subject is repeated by the line comprised of the distant string of horses which connects with the shadows of Alec Taylor's hack to the left and the horse on the right reaching the peak of the hill, all of which lead us back to Short Story. Likewise, the unidentified shadow on the right and the centre vertical cloud also point to the main subject.

The distant vignettes seen under the legs of the main figures are again a device to put the subject horse in context: Wootton, Stubbs, and Ferneley all developed the prototype, but this is one of the first instances of it appearing in Munnings' oeuvre, and its success led him to repeat it in other compositions. Indeed, many of the elements in the present picture were repeated by Munnings in later commissions.
Alec Taylor is given a prominent place within the composition, worthy of his various wins with Lord Astor's horses and the successive Oaks wins with Short Story earlier that year and Saucy Sue the prior June. Taylor seemingly holds court over his charges as he surveys his champion mare with pride. His relaxed seat in the saddle suggests confidence. Everyone is attending to their duties so it is the grey horse who stares attentively out at the viewer drawing us into the scene. Munnings often used a secondary figure for this role.

Although using a limited palette, Munnings repeats the hues throughout the picture creating perfect tonal balance. He was the first to use pastel colours as highlights and shadows on the coats of horses.

This portrait of Lord Astor's horse is as much a commemorative piece to acknowledge Short Story's success in winning the sought after Oaks as it is an appreciation of Alec Taylor's accomplishment as a trainer. The fact that Lord Astor, who was at the pinnacle of his owning career having been chief patron at Manton since 1911, chose an artist who had only entered the arena of international fame a few years before for such an important a commission, attests to his foresight. Indeed this may have been another facet of the very quality that made Astor one of the pre-eminent breeders of his day.

We would like to thank Lorian Peralta-Ramos for her help in preparing the catalogue entry for this work, which will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Sir Alfred Munnings.

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