In the summers of 1910 and 1911 Munnings went on extended painting expeditions from his home at Swainsthorpe to the nearby Ringland Hills, making his headquarters at The Falcon Inn at Costessey. 'Ringland and Costessey, on the west side of Norwich are situated in one of the loveliest districts of all the pleasant country surrounding that old city. Although only six to eight miles away, with little perceptible variation, their serenity was unbroken, their peace continuous and unalloyed, the inhabitants living on in the same unaltered ways of life, toiling and resting, their quietude as yet undisturbed by motor horn or sound of tractor' (op. cit., p. 208).
The view from the ridge of the hills across the Wensum valley towards the distant wooded parklands of Taverham Hall was breathtaking. It provided an impressive backdrop to a series of paintings, of which the present work is one of the most poetic and atmospheric. Munnings wrote, 'I was working in a sort of gravelly hollow. The white ponies stood up against the sky in sunlight, with the distant blue Taverham country across the valley showing beneath their bellies. A splendid subject! I revelled in painting on that sandy brow. What occasional passers-by thought of us from below never struck me. Nobody cared and I was at peace' (op. cit., pp. 217-18).
A gentle breeze ruffles the manes of the ponies as Shrimp drives them along the ridge, riding bareback with a simple halter and rope. He rides the Welsh mare, with another white pony and the dark-brown dartmoor mare by his side. Munnings had a particular affection for white ponies which dated back to when the family doctor, George Candler lent the artist his wife's fat, white favourite in the early 1900s. Munnings recalled the joy he felt painting 'the magic of his tones' (op. cit., p. 96) and later purchased a white pony which he named Augereau and described as 'the most picturesque of white ponies - an artist's ideal' (op. cit., p. 199). The white Welsh mare in the present work was purchased, along with the dartmoor mare, from the horse dealer, James Drake in 1910. 'Then for twenty pounds I bought a beautiful old white Welsh mare with a long, curly mane and tail and Arab-looking countenance. Her muzzle was blue-black, the same tint surrounded her patient eye' (op. cit., p. 213). She was greatly loved by both the artist and by Shrimp who suffered an uncharacteristic loss of poise when she later broke a fetlock and had to be put down. 'This was the only time I had seen shrimp in tears of sorrow. In rage he shed them, but these were real tears of grief, and it took him a great while to forget that kindly, useful creature. He had sat through many blissful hours of idleness on her broad white back. The seat and side of his cord trousers were covered with her white hairs' (op. cit., p. 243).
A subtle, pearly-grey painting, On Ringland Hills contrasts with the bright and sunny picture made on the same spot, Shrimp on a White Welsh Pony, 1911 (private collection; see S. Booth, Sir Alfred Munnings, London, 1978, illustrated p. 93). Munnings characteristically worked on both sunny and grey weather canvases on the ridge, alternating between them as conditions dictated. '"Look, Sir," Bob would say, as I worked away on the ridge of the hill at Ringland - "Look at them old clouds comin' up!" ... And sure enough, just when I had got into my stride, in the very spirit of the picture - doing wonders, in fact - a cold blanket of forlorn misery was closing upon me. Clouds were slowly coming in succession, not followed by spaces of promising blue, but by formations that gave no hope'. However, 'Always in that flat cart, nearby in the shade, lay my other canvases, among them the grey subject, already well on its way, belonging to the same spot. "Bob, help me!" The discarded sunny picture is laid in the cart, the other placed on the easel, and again I am at work in the fresh mood, recovering from the setback. Deep in the grey picture, I am painting the distant belt of Taverham Woods on the skyline, seen below the bellies of the ponies standing on the ridge ... I made my large picture on that occasion at Ringland into the one now in Sydney Art Gallery, entitled The Coming Storm' (op. cit., pp. 223-24).
When Munnings compiled the first volume of his autobiography, An Artist's Life, published in 1950, he wrote in an undated letter to Charles A. Bunting, 'Now Sir, You have two pictures there of which I must have photographs. One is of the ponies coming up out of the Waveney [lot 6]. A good one that. And one of the lad riding the two pones along the ridge of Ringland Hills, with the sky behind them. Two white ponies and another, I believe. A pearly, grey picture'. On Ringland Hills was duly illustrated in his memoirs on the same page as the picture to which it relates, The Coming Storm, 1911 (Sydney Art Gallery).