Epsom, a racetrack with 350 years of history and home of the Derby and The Oaks, had captivated Munnings as far back as 1913 when he was first invited there to join a fellow artist to paint, and the allure never ceased. He captured all features of Epsom from the hop-pickers and gypsies to the saddling and unsaddling of horses. Only once did he paint horse actually running there. Munnings once said that Epsom expressed the true meaning of the term The Races.
'There is no saddling paddock like the one at Epsom .... Since Epsom had been to me a source of inspiration from the Grand Parade's Derby onwards, I should be leaving a considerable gap if I did not write my the race-cards of the meeting ... For years and years my next hurried everyone waiting to see the Derby winner. For a few moments this one particular animal occupies the thoughts of all who are waiting there. Such a race and finish had had the same effect of every looker-on.
Nothing else in the world matters for the time being to those
discussing it ... …I must have seen hundreds of winners of races in that ring... (A. J. Munnings The Finish, 1952, Bungay p220 and p230).
The scene of unsaddling in the winner's enclosure was obviously dear to Munnings' heart as he experimented with the moment on numerous occasions, altering the brightness of the sky and its colour effects on the highlights on the horse. He also changed his subject to a chestnut horse examining the highlight and shadow on a lighter, redder coloured horse, one of which is illustrated in The Finish after p.232.
His largest example (39 x 47in.) using the same dark bay horse seen in the present work, was exhibited in the Royal Academy 1955 and ex collection of the Santa Anita Race Track, California. In addition, Munnings painted and kept a number of other versions for his own collection at Castle House, Dedham.
Adapting an Impressionist colour theory of reflected light, Munnings has the exhausted horse, lathered from his victory race. The horse is beautifully defined, but Munnings' keen knowledge of equine disposition and his portraitist's eye for detail has captured the winner's exhaustion . In addition to the lathered coat, the horse's nostrils are extended and blowing and the ears are held back and loose. Even the horse's eye expresses its weariness. This ability to articulate the 'language' of the horse is one of Munnings' key qualities and makes him the virtuoso of equine art.
Munnings originally experimented with the image of thoroughly exhausted horses for his work Changing Horses, for which he won a gold medal at the 1922 Paris Salon (Museum of Art Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg). In his memoirs he describes having his wife gallop a horse and then stand so that he could accurately capture the blowing nostrils and heaving sides. It is most probable that Munnings repeated this to achieve the same effect in the present work.
We are grateful to Lorian Peralta Ramos for her help in preparing this catalogue entry. The picture will be included in her forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné of the work of Sir Alfred Munnings'