Munnings has captured the essence of elegance and grandeur of life for the English aristocracy in the pre-World War II period. The gentleman is apparently an accomplished horseman and sits with confidence astride an elegant bay horse in a parkland landscape with imposing walls to the right and a village church in the distance. He elegantly removes his top hat as he acknowledges the viewer and engages directly with a distant audience as he rides past. It is rare for Munnings to feature his subjects looking out of the canvas as they usually look straight ahead as they ride across the scene (fig. 1).
The unusual gesture of holding his hat as he rides past the viewer can be traced to earlier equestrian painters such as John Ferneley whose portait of Mr. George Marriott (fig. 2) shows the sitter jumping a fence in the hunting field and holding his top hat in his right hand as he acknowledges the viewer. It has been suggested that the formal attire of the sitter may be an indication that this was a portrait commemorating a successful equestrian competition - most likely dressage judging by the double reins, long stirrups, long trousers as well as the gait of the horse. The sitter is therefore possibly acknowledging the judges at the beginning or end of his performance.
Although the identity of the sitter remains unknown at present, it is thought to have been a commissioned work. The fluid and confident brushstrokes are typical of his commissioned works in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The portrait was acquired by Cynthia Burden (1884-1966), née Hon. Cynthia Burke Roche, daughter of the 3rd Baron Fermoy, probably directly from the artist on one of her trips back to England and is first recorded in her inventory in 1935 in their house in Long Island. The connection between the Burden family and Munnings had extended back into the 1920s when Munnings had painted Cynthia's mother-in-law Mrs Burden in 1924 on his visit to Long Island. He mentions in his biography, 'There were Mr. and Mrs. Burden of Syosset, the house which was occupied by the Prince of Wales during the international polo. Dear Mrs. Burden possessed a bay horse - an old favourite. I liked Mrs. Burden and her sixteen-year-old friend, the bay. What is more, her home was perfection, and she had the right taste and was the right sort, so the picture turned out well.' (A.J. Munnings, The Second Burst, Bungay, 1951, p. 169). Cynthia Burden later married Mr. Guy Fairfax Cary, Sr.
It is interesting to note that Mrs. Guy Fairfax Cary owned another elegant equestrian portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) entitled George Harley Drummond (1783-1855). Painted circa 1808-9 it depicts Mr. Drummond of Stanmore, Middlesex and Drumotchty, dressed in riding clothes, standing beside his grazing bay horse, his left arm upon the saddle and holding a hunting whip in his right hand. She gifted the painting to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1949 in memory of her mother Mrs. Burke Roche.
This work will be included in the Lorian Peralta-Ramos' forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Sir Alfred Munnings.