At the turn of the 19th century, the English artist Ben Marshall (1768-1835) claimed he knew ‘many a man who will pay 50 guineas for painting his horse [yet] thinks 10 guineas too much for painting his wife.’ Marshall was one of many artists who made a handsome living from aristocrats wanting to have their steeds captured on canvas.
In the early 18th century, breeders had begun to cross Arabian stallions with English mares, and the thoroughbred racehorse was duly born. The breed was soon all the rage. The likes of Marshall and his master George Stubbs (1724-1806) depicted these horses at race meetings, and their pictures are at the core of a genre known as sporting art. It’s a genre that captures all manner of rural pastimes, from fox-hunting and fishing to game-shooting and hare-coursing.
‘Sporting art concerns itself, above all, with the natural world and man’s relationship to it,’ says Brandon Lindberg, Director and senior specialist of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art at Christie’s in London. ‘It perhaps explains why it thrived throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and even into the 20th century. Sporting pictures celebrate the environment people lived in — the English landscape — and that has always been a subject of great enthusiasm.’
The record price for a work in the genre was set in 2011, when Stubbs’ painting Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath sold at Christie’s for £22,441,250.
Sporting art offers as rich a picture of British life at the time it was painted as any portrait by Gainsborough or Reynolds. The scenes fell somewhat out of fashion during the 20th century, though: in his book, Painting in Britain 1530-1790, Ellis Waterhouse claimed that ‘although of absorbing interest to the social historian’, British sporting imagery is ‘no business of the historian of art’.
Opinion has shifted again since Waterhouse wrote those words in 1953. The National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, in the town of Newmarket, reopened in 2016 after a £15 million refurbishment and expansion. There has also been a growing interest in sporting pictures among collectors in the Middle East and China.
‘The genre’s big names, such as Stubbs and Sir Alfred Munnings, have consistently done well at auction,’ Lindberg says. ‘But it’s at the middle and lower end of the market where the best opportunities for a potential collector lie. Works by relatively little-known artists are available at very reasonable prices.’
On 12 December, Christie’s will stage In the Field, a sale of sporting works from an important private collection. Below, we highlight seven key artists associated with the genre.
George Stubbs (1724-1806)
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Liverpudlian Leonardo’, Stubbs is arguably the greatest painter of horses who ever lived. In large part, this was down to the scientific rigour and anatomical accuracy he brought to his work: the product of 18 months during which he locked himself away in a barn as a young man, dissecting, closely examining and drawing horses.
He’d go on to count various dukes and marquesses, not to mention the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), as his patrons. Whistlejacket, Stubbs’ life-size portrait of the eponymous racehorse, is one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery in London.
John Ferneley Senior (1781-1860)
‘If not quite in the league of Stubbs, Ferneley was still one of this country’s top equine artists,’ says Lindberg. The sixth son of a Leicestershire wheelwright, Ferneley moved to London to study at the Royal Academy School, before returning to his home county and settling in Melton Mowbray.
John Frederick Herring Senior (1795-1865)
According to Lindberg, ‘Herring was one of the most interesting sporting artists.’ He started out as a coachman on routes between London and Yorkshire, painting only in his spare time. In due course, he settled in Doncaster — one of the stops on his drives — and became an artist full-time, painting the horses of numerous Yorkshire families.
Among his best-known works are those of the winners of prestigious horse races, such as the St Leger Stakes and the Derby, which he attended each year.
In 1845, he was asked by Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, to paint the monarch’s two favourite horses. The resultant painting, Tajar and Hammon, was given to Victoria as a birthday present and forms part of the Royal Collection today.
Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935)
Much like Stubbs, Thorburn was a supreme observer — however birds rather than horses were his specialist subject. He made frequent and extensive tours across the British Isles, seeking ornithological subjects to study.
‘Often this crossed over into sporting scenes,’ says Lindberg. ‘In images of driven grouse, for example. He created watercolours in the field, and they have a remarkable sense of immediacy because of this.’
Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873)
Named a Royal Academician while still in his twenties and knighted while in his forties, ‘Landseer was nothing short of a virtuoso,’ says Lindberg. Perhaps the most enduring reminders of his talent are the four bronze lions on London’s Trafalgar Square, which he modelled.
A favourite of Queen Victoria’s, Landseer made his name with pictures of stags, horses and dogs that exhibit very human behaviours. The cut-and-thrust of his hunting scenes owed a clear debt to those of the Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens, from 200 years earlier.
John Emms (1843-1912)
Emms began as a studio assistant to Frederic, Lord Leighton, before striking out on his own as an animal portraitist. He was praised for the vitality and individuality of his subjects, and particularly renowned for his dogs.
Often these were hounds, boasting a remarkable range of freshness/tiredness and depicted with confident, fluid brushstrokes. Emms was a keen huntsman himself and regularly went out with the packs of the New Forest area, where he lived most of his life.
Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959)
‘One might call Munnings the last, great British sporting artist,’ Lindberg says. ‘No account of the genre is complete without him.’
After serving as a war artist, recording the activities of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade in France during the First World War, Munnings made a career out of horse-racing pictures and hunting scenes.
As is clear from works such as A Start at Newmarket (1937), his style and subject matter were strongly influenced by the French Impressionist, Edgar Degas (who had also painted racing scenes). Munnings particularly liked to capture that moment of hushed tension just before the race’s start, as the jockeys in their brightly coloured silks prepare for the eruption of energy and excitement.