In May 1910 Munnings set off from his home at Church Farm, Swainsthorpe to work en plein air in his favourite painting grounds near Norwich. He made his headquarters at The Falcon Inn in Costessey, a small village situated a few miles west of the city on the river Wensum beneath Ringland Hills. From this base he was close to the valley's tranquil water meadows and Ringland's gorse-covered uplands. 'From then, for weeks onwards, I worked with little disturbance, free and happy on those hills. After painting awhile, the beauty of the gorse and sunlight on the pones became a problem and a joy. Days flew by' (An Artist's Life, Bungay, 1950, p. 217).
James Drake, the horse dealer provided the artist with his models for the season. 'Having my own models gave me endless themes. The mere sight of the ponies, coming or going, or different placing of groups gave me fresh pictures. Like a game of chess, there was no end to it' (op. cit., p. 238). From Drake, 'for twenty pounds I bought a beautiful old white Welsh mare with a long, curly mane and tail and Arab-looking countenance ... My next deal was a little dark-brown Dartmoor mare, fat and round, with flowing mane and tail, for five pounds. Her wicked ways accounted for this low figure, for she was only five years old ... then I bought a bay yearling colt and a small, dun-coloured horse, to encourage Drake to take an interest in what I was determined to do' (op. cit., p. 213). The ponies were kept in two roadside meadows which Munnings rented from Ringland Parish Council. Bob, his lad was set the task of mending any weak places in the fences but despite his efforts on one occasion the ponies escaped through a gap and had to be retrieved from a farm two miles away.
In Coming through the Gap, Munnings's ponies are driven up over a bank by Shrimp, 'the best model I ever had' (op. cit., p. 217). Known as Shrimp on account of his modest height, George Fountain Page was the illegitimate son of a house-maid at Narford Hall, the home of the Fountain family near Swaffham. He was working for Drake when Munnings found him and took him on as helper and model. 'Shrimp, that utterly uneducated, wild, ageless youth, who slept underneath Drake's caravan. When not wanted, he lay on the dusty ground or grass (each came alike to him), smoked cigarettes, and played with the lesser dogs, lurchers and children. He was a good bare-back rider and sly as a fox'. He wears the outfit which Munnings ordered for him, 'On my instruction Shrimp had gone to Norwich, to a tailor in Dove Street who made clothes for the fraternity, to be measured and fitted for the usual cut of tight cord trousers and black-fronted, sleeve waistcoat - a garment of the past, a georgian relic. Cut long, with drabbet sleeves and back, a black cloth front with step collar, deep pocket-flaps and black pearl buttons, it was useful and picturesque. Shrimp, thus attired, with a yellow handkerchief round his neck, was a paintable figure' (op. cit., p. 211).
Munnings revelled in the challenges of painting a medley of horses rushing headlong out of the picture. His inspiration was undoubtedly Lucy Elizabeth Kemp-Welch's monumental composition, Colt Hunting in the New Forest, 1897 (Tate Britain; see L. Wortley, Lucy Kemp-Welch The Spirit of the Horse, London, 1997, illustrated p. 41). Showing a group of wild ponies being driven through a clearing in the New Forest in a great burst straight towards the onlooker, the painting created a sensation when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1897. It was immediately purchased for the nation by the Chantrey Bequest Fund for the vast sum of £525 and launched Kemp-Welch into national prominence overnight. Munnings recalled, 'I had seen Colt Hunting in the New Forest by Lucy Kemp Welch, an enormous canvas, at the Academy that year. The picture appeared in every illustrated paper. It was all the talk. My aunts talked of it. My uncle, who read Rider Haggard, Marie Corelli, and went to London to see Irving and the Doé Gallery, had seen it. I was out to beat it, whatever the cost' (op. cit., p. 141). Starting with The Vagabonds, 1902 (private collection; see lots 10-12) Munnings repeatedly tackled the challenges of painting horses advancing directly towards him. Coming through the Gap is arguably the most impressive and dramatic interpretation of this subject; one can almost hear the cries of Shrimp and the rumble of the ponies' hoofs as they crest the bank and rush forward.