John Frederick Herring, Sen. (1795-1865)
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John Frederick Herring, Sen. (1795-1865)

The Start for the Derby, 1834

John Frederick Herring, Sen. (1795-1865)
The Start for the Derby, 1834
signed and dated 'J.F.Herring 1834' (lower left)
oil on canvas
40¼ x 60 3/8 in. (102.3 x 153.4 cm.)
Commissioned from the artist by David Robertson.
with Scott & Fowles, Inc., New York.
Ambassador Raymond R. Guest (+), Sotheby's, New York, 11 April 1997, lot 49.
James Gilbert, Memoir of J.F. Herring, Esq., Sheffield, 1848, p. 9.
London, Royal Academy, Pre-Raphaelite and other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd-Webber Collection, 20 September-12 December 2003, no. 152.
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Lot Essay

The present picture is, on many levels, an exceptional example within Herring's oeuvre. The sheer scale and ambition of the composition announces the work of an artist rising to the challenge of expectation resulting from his ever-growing popularity. The exquisite detail and faultless draftsmanship - even while he tackles the most complicated poses, angles and distances - show an artist in his prime. While the horses and jockeys appear calm and collected before the race, the sense of tension and contained energy is conveyed through his arrangement of such an ambitious composition within the limits of the canvas.

The paintings of John Frederick Herring, Sen. represent the most important and accurate depictions of the history of the turf in the first half of the 19th Century. Oliver Beckett noted Herring's striking ability to capture the likeness of the horses and his superior understanding of their form, 'Herring's intimate association with so many outstanding thoroughbreds over a long period, and the fact that he often had painted the sire or the dam - or both - of his present 'sitter', gave him an unequalled knowledge of the bloodlines of those can be seen that his ability to depict the true shape and form of a race-horse was won in a hard school and by long experience.' (O. Beckett, J.F. Herring & Sons, London, 1981, pp. 46-47).

Herring painted twenty-one Derby winners, thirty-four of the St. Leger, and eleven winners of the Oaks. According to James Gilbert, his contemporary, a Herring portrait was considered 'the crowning honour to the high mettle winner.' (op. cit., p. 9). However, above these individual portraits, it is his 'few large pictures of grand events' (op. cit., p. 9), such as the present work, which are considered his greatest racing pictures.

The present work was commissioned by David Robertson, of 'Ladybank', Berwick-on-Tweed, whose racehorse, Little Wonder won the 1840 Derby. First mentioned in Gilbert's memoir (op. cit.), The Start for the Derby (1834) is recorded as being 'sent, by desire, for the inspection of his late Majesty William the Fourth.' Herring was a favourite of the British Royal family and in 1845 he was appointed the official animal painter to the Duchess of Kent (Queen Victoria's mother). This appointment was the pinnacle of an illustrious career which had begun at the age of 19 in more modest circumstances when Herring moved to the Yorkshire racing centre of Doncaster in 1813, possibly to see the running of the Great St. Leger of that year. He started out working for a coach-painter in that town but quickly established himself independently with commissions for horse portraits from the local gentry. In 1816 he began, with Duchess, to paint the St. Leger winners. An early patron was the Hon. Edward Petre of Stapleton Park, a successful racehorse owner who's horses won a number of Classic races. In a joint venture with the Doncaster Gazette, Herring annually sketched each St. Leger winner and these were later published as a successful series of colour prints. He exhibited his first work at the Royal Academy in 1818 and by 1820 he had become a professional artist. He later moved to Newmarket to be closer to his patrons and his reputation increased until the 1850s when he was patronised not only by the Duchess of Kent as mentioned previously, but also Queen Victoria and Ferdinand, Duc d'Orleans.

The Derby Stakes, known colloquially as The Derby and internationally as the Epsom Derby, is considered one of the most prestigious flat thoroughbred horse races in the world. In 1834 its position as the world's premier race was unchallenged unless it was by the St. Leger. The race takes place each year in June at Epsom Downs, Surrey. It is the second leg of the English Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing, preceded by the 2000 Guineas and followed by the St. Leger. The race is a contest for three-year-old colts and fillies - colts nowadays carry 9 st (126 lb or 57.2 kg) and fillies 8 st 9 lb (121 lb or 54.9 kg) over 1 1/2 miles but in 1834 the weights were 8 st 7 lbs and 8 st 2 lbs.

The 1834 Derby Stakes was won by Mr. Stanlake Batson's Plenipotentiary who beat the Duke of Cleveland's bay colt Shillelegh by two lengths, with Lord Jersey's chestnut colt Glencoe finishing third. The three-year-olds of 1834 are considered to be one of the vintage crops of the British Turf, making Plenipotentiary's Derby victory all the greater. It was also a rare triumph for the gentleman-owner, Mr. Batson, of Horseheath, Cambridgeshire, against the aristocratic owners the Earl of Jersey and the Duke of Cleveland. Batson was a long-time Jockey Club member and owned some good race horses, including the filly Pranks, who won the 1814 Ascot Gold Cup, but his stable was not in the same league as those of his two main rivals in the Derby of 1834.

Plenipotentiary, a chesnut colt by Emilius out of Harriet, grew to over 15.2 hands. He had an exceptionally large bone structure and maintained very good weight even when racing. He had a strong, easy action, and proved to have both stamina and speed. Plenipotentiary made a winning racecourse debut in a small sweepstakes at the 1834 Newmarket Craven meeting before reappearing there two days later in the Craven Stakes where he first encountered, and beat, Glencoe. The significance of this win was enhanced by Glencoe's victory in the 2000 Guineas a fortnight later.

Glencoe was owned by one of the most significant racehorse owners of the 19th Century. George Child Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey and 8th Baron Grandison, was a member of a family that had a close and distinguished connection with the development of racing in England. As an owner and breeder, the 5th Earl was one of the most successful in his family. He owned and bred two Derby winners in Middleton and Bay Middleton (see lot 66), owned a third Derby winner in Mameluke, and was responsible as owner and breeder for the 2000 Guineas winners Riddlesworth, Glencoe, Ibrahim, Bay Middleton and Achmet; the 1000 Guineas winners Charlotte West and Cobweb; and the Oaks winner Cobweb. He also bred the 1000 Guineas winner Clementina and the Oaks winner The Princess, but sold those fillies before they gained their classic victories.

Glencoe later became enormously influential at Stud, siring the great brood mare Pocahontas, Rataplan and King Tom. Glencoe was then purchased by Colonel Jackson of Alabama and provided a valuable outcross for the legendary American racehorse Lexington, the sixteen-times champion stallion. Asteroid, Kentucky and Norfolk, all from Lexington's first crop, were the best three horses in the country and were all out of Glencoe mares.

Going into the race, Plenipotentiary's most dangerous rival was Shilelegh, owned by William Henry Vane, formerly 3rd Earl of Darlington. He had been created 1st Marquis of Cleveland and only five years later 1st Duke of Cleveland in 1832 for his military services and his seat and stud were at Raby Castle along the Yorkshire-Durham border. The Duke was an enthusiastic sportsman who hunted his large tracts of land with what became the famous Raby Pack. After the turn of the century, he became increasingly involved in racehorse ownership - purchasing thousands of pounds worth of horses to run and later place in his stud, including Voltaire, Trustee, Liverpool, Barefoot, Memnon, and Muley Moloch. He won the St. Leger with Lottery's son, Chorister, in 1831.

Shilelegh, a dark bay colt by St Patrick, was purchased as a yearling by the trainer William Chifney and ridden by his brother, Sam. Shilelegh was purchased two days before the race by the Duke of Cleveland from the infamous Chifney brothers, who had been plotting a betting coup by spreading unfavourable rumours about the horse's well-being, in order to secure longer odds from the bookmakers.

In 1834 the weather in June was glorious and a large crowd turned up on Epsom Downs to watch the Derby. The race had twenty-two runners which led to five false starts before the race was successfully begun. Plenipotentiary started at 9 to 4 favourite. He was ridden by Patrick Conolly and although he and Glencoe were the first to show, he managed to restrain him until rounding Tattenham Corner when he moved forward and was in fourth place as the horses straightened for home. According to legend Glencoe's jockey, Jem Robinson, had been told to beat Plenipotentiary with Glencoe's speed, and Robinson later said, "I came the first half mile as hard as I could lick; but, on looking round, I saw the great fat bullock cantering by my side." Patrick Conolly, Plenipotentiary's jockey, called over, "I'm here, Master Jemmy, only waiting until I'm wanted." Glencoe was in the lead until the final two hundred and fifty yards when Plenipotentiary accelerated clear with apparent ease, drawing a huge cheer from the crowd. Shilelagh caught up on Glencoe to finish second.

Plenipotentiary had a walk-over for the St. James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot. The following season he won three races, including the Craven Stakes, beating Shilelagh and both Clearwell and Rosalie in a race which was also painted by Herring (see O. Beckett, J. F. Herring & Sons, London, 1981, p. 106). Plenipotentiary was then retired to stud where he did not excel but he did sire two classic-winning fillies, Potentia (1000 Guineas, 1841) who belonged to Mr. Batson, and Poison (Oaks Stakes, 1843).

Herring shows Mr. Batson's Plenipotentiary (crimson, white seams, black cap) in the centre and the other horses featured prominently are, from left to right: Mr. Watt's Bubastes (Harlequin); Mr. Gardener's Cornet (white, blue sleeves); Mr Yates's Beatley (orange); Mr. Gully's Viator (violet, white cap); the Duke of Cleveland's Shilelegh (pink, black seams and cap); Lord Lowther's Rioter (white, yellow seams, red cap); Lord Jersey's Glencoe (dark blue and buff stripes, black cap); and Mr. Peel's Noodle (dark blue, orange sleeves and cap).

Herring is known to have painted two smaller portraits of Plenipotentiary with Conolly up and also included the horse in one of his imaginary horse races, where the colt is seen running against Touchstone (winner of the St. Leger, 1834), Priam (winner of the Derby, 1830), and Grey Momus (winner of 2000 Guineas, 1838).

Patrick Conolly won the Derby again in 1841 on Coronation for Mr. Abraham Rawlinson.

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