Situated at the cliff's edge, the cold damp air surrounds the group as they wait patiently for news from below, the grey horse's ears alert as he listens and watches. The silvery-grey tonality of the painting re-inforces the misty atmosphere and by situating the figures at the edge of the cliff Munnings has created a theatre of drama and anticipation.
The exact date when Munnings initially went to Cornwall is uncertain. His memoirs state that he first visited in either the summer of 1910 or 1911 as he was curious to see the country which had attracted the famous community of painters in the Newlyn School. He describes the inspiration that he drew from the landscape around Zennor:
'Zennor, on the north coast of Cornwall, not far from St Ives, was at the time a primitive and unspoilt village. Being in granite country, where the soil was shallow, huge masses of stone were built into walls; every wall on each side of every lane consisted of huge stone slabs of split granite....In fact this was the most picturesque and charming place. Having seen the village more than once whilst the hounds were drawing a fox on Zennor Hill, and having visited it many times with friends, I was itching to get to the place and use Ned [Ned Osborn was a local man whom Munnings used as a model and groom while in Cornwall] and the horses in fresh scenes.' (A.J. Munnings, An Artist's Life, Bungay, 1950, p. 275).
He painted several different scenes of Ned with his horse Grey Tick, sometimes riding (such as Huntsman and Hounds Going Up Zennor Hill, R.A., 1919, no. 576) or in attendance as in the present work. The culmination of this series was Gone to Cliff (fig. 1) which ranks as one of Munnings' finest and most atmospheric hunting scenes and was inspired by an actual event that occurred whilst the artist was out hunting with the Western Hounds at Morvah on the north Cornish coast.
Munnings describes the present scene, 'I tried various subjects. One so often seen when a fox runs to a the cliff - a grey sky, a grey sea, and grey granite rocks; a mounted figure holding a horse silhouetted against the white band of surf below; the whipper-in waiting whilst the huntsman goes down the cliff for hounds which have followed the fox over the boulders to a sanctuary from where they will never get him out' (A.J. Munnings, An Artist's Life, Bungay, 1950, p. 277). In the same volume, Munnings illustrates An April Fox, an example of a similar scene on top of Zennor Hill (after p. 200) which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919 as no. 598, in Norwich in 1928 as no. 42 and at the retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1956, no. 53.
The rugged unspoilt and dramatic nature of the cliffs at Zennor was new compared with Munnings' native Suffolk and held a fascination for him. He describes Zennor Hill and 'the sight and sound on the band of white, moving surf, six hundred feet below, at the foot of steep-pinnacled granite cliffs, which on some great headland stood like castles above the restless surging of the Atlantic ground-swell. No words can describe these scenic effects' (A.J. Munnings, An Artist's Life, Bungay, 1950, p. 271).
This work will be included in Lorian Peralta-Ramos' forthcoming catalogue raisonée of the works of Sir Alfred Munnings.