Sir Alfred Munnings spent the first two decades of the 20th century painting rural scenes of his beloved England, in which the horse, the artist’s most iconic subject matter, was an inextricable part of the landscape. Munnings’s dedication to horses was so complete he began his memoir with a chapter giving them credit for his success. 'I want to start with horses. Although they have given me much trouble and many sleepless nights, they have been my supporters, friends – my destiny, in fact. Looking back at my life, interwoven with theirs… I hope I have learned something of their ways…I have never ceased trying to understand them…[They are] friends which have helped to place me where I now stand' (An Artist’s Life, Bungay 1950, page 14). Munnings had been totally enamored of horses from an early age, so it is no surprise that they should form such an integral part of the artist’s oeuvre. Not only did he excel at capturing their physical likeness, for which he could command a healthy sum even as a young boy, his knowledge of horses went beyond mere equine form. Munnings understood his subjects intimately and could transcribe their character and personality onto his canvas as well.
While Munnings often took his own horses as his subjects in his non-commissioned portrait work, the horses in the present canvas remain unidentified. Nevertheless, they are brilliant examples of Munnings’s ability to capture his subjects in a variety of different poses and attitudes. The four horses are set in a grassy hilltop field, with two grays framed by a chestnut and a bay. The positioning of the bay at left, demonstrating complex foreshortening, is Munnings at his most assured in understanding the physiognomy of his subject. Munnings is regarded as the first equine artist to understand that a horse takes on colors of its surroundings and this particular use of light became a hallmark of his paintings, setting him apart from previous sporting artists. In Horses at Grass, the coats of the four horses reflect not only the warm sunlight, but also the greens of the grass, the blues of the sky, and the tones of each other’s coats as well, all to brilliant effect. The hilltop placement of the group also allows the artist to use a low horizon line, which permits him to fill more than half the canvas with an energetic rendering of the clouds above the horses, just beginning to reflect the golden tones of late afternoon sun in the same manner as the horses’ coats. This bravura cloud study was undoubtedly inspired by Munnings’s great East Anglian artistic predecessor John Constable, who he often sought to emulate in his landscapes. The present work is likely the same Horses at Grass that Munnings exhibited in 1925 at the Royal Academy.
The early history of the present work is inextricably linked with the city of Nottingham. Its first owner was John Dane Player, the son of a Nottingham businessman. The family business grew from a dry goods shop and manure agent into John Player & Sons, among the first companies in England to offer pre-packaged tobacco. When John Dane’s father died in 1884, he left a thriving business, three factory blocks in Nottingham, and a carefully prepared will that dictated that John Dane and his brother William not take over the company until the age of 25. In 1901, John Player & Sons joined 12 other tobacco firms to create the Imperial Tobacco Company. Horses at Grass later passed to Dr. Patrick H. O'Donovan, a cardiologist at Nottingham General Hospital. John Dane Player had long been a supporter of the Nottingham Children’s Hospital, leaving it £50,000 over his lifetime, and knew Dr. O'Donovan, widely considered to be one of the best cardiac specialists in the Midlands, personally.
We are grateful to Lorian Peralta-Ramos for confirming the authenticity of this work, which will be included in her forthcoming Sir Alfred Munnings catalogue raisonné.