In 1925 Munnings received a commission to paint equestrian portraits of Mr and Mrs W. Riley-Smith of Toulston near Tadcaster, North Yorkshire.
Beryl Riley-Smith is classically portrayed in profile riding side-saddle on her grey hunter Snowflake against a landscape which opens out to reveal Toulston wood and the spire of Clifford Church, a few miles west of Tadcaster. In the distance, her spaniel Don runs ahead of her. In W. Riley-Smith Esq., Changing Ponies, Mr Riley-Smith is portrayed seated on a polo pony while his groom stands by holding another pony. Mr Riley-Smith, a descendant of the Smith brewing family who had established John Smith breweries in 1758, had built a polo field, the portrait thus reflecting his interests (Sotheby's New York, 28 October 1982, lot 106). Both W. Riley-Smith, Esq., Changing Ponies and the present work were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1927.
An accomplished rider and huntsman himself, Munnings enjoyed the company of the Riley-Smiths, and there is clearly a rapport between the artist and the sitters. In the second volume of his autobiography he recalls, 'Being in the middle of a chapter about Yorkshire, I am reminded of one more place, called Toulston, where I stayed with a good fellow, a famous brewer - Riley-Smith. Already I am recalling dinner-parties; jolly nights with my host at the pianola - wireless not having quite come into its own in those days. His delight was a game of polo. I painted him on one of his ponies; another pony was in the picture - "Changing Ponies", I think we called it. Again my mind is straying - it has strayed to the lunch-table at the Garrick Club. E.V. Lucas is saying to me:
"Alfred, I have been to the Academy this morning. Your best picture is the polo-player changing ponies. I like it very much."
High praise from a high quarter. "E.V.", as we called him, was very pernickety about pictures, and said what he thought. To get back to Toulston, and the pianola, the ponies and the rooks in the rookery, the principal reason for my visit was to paint a large portrait of Riley-Smith's wife on a wonderful mare - a grey called Snowflake, for which he had paid seven hundred and fifty. This dappled grey mare was perfection - in looks and manners. The last time that I saw Mr Riley-Smith was at the Gimcrack dinner in York the winter before last. I do not think I had seen him since my stay in Toulston in 1926, twenty-four years ago. - Time flies!' (see A.J. Munnings, The Second Burst, Bungay, 1950, p. 226).
Munnings excelled at painting formal equestrian portraits of elegant ladies. Phyllis and Rachel, daughters of Lt. Col. H.H. Spender-Clay, C.M.G., M.C., M.P. (The Morning Ride or The Two Dianas) (private collection) is a double portrait of two young ladies riding with their spaniels in a quintessentially English landscape, and Sybil Harker on Saxa, with the Norwich Staghounds (Christie's New York, 6 December 2000, lot 90, $1,161,000) portrays the sitter in just such a pose with her hounds and the hunt in the distance.
The landscape is depicted with great attention to detail; incorporated into the composition is an old gnarled oak tree, an image he repeated in The Old Oak (London, Royal Academy, 1927, no. 146). Indeed, it was an important motif, the majestic oak tree featured in the portrait The Prince of Wales on Forest Witch, 1921, gave rise to the oak being used in other portraits, one client even insisting on it, 'Now, Mr Munnings, you must put in an old Rowlandson oak-tree on the right' (see A.J. Munnings, The Second Burst, Bungay, 1950, p. 171).
Before its arrival at Christie's, the present work had been hanging a mile and a half from the spot at which it was painted in 1925.