This work is the preliminary version of the commissioned picture Presentation of New Standards to the Life Guards by the late King George V, (illustrated L. Lindsay, A.J. Munnings, R.A. Pictures of Horses and English Life, London, 1939, p. 33, no. 8). In the larger version Munnings made the drummer and his horse more visible and eliminated the building beyond.
The present work was clearly painted en plein air on Horse Guards Parade during the May dress rehearsal and illustrates the freshness and spontaneity characteristic of Munnings's work. His ability to work accurately and at speed was something he excelled at and made him a phenomenon of his day.
Munnings has focussed in on the Standard bearer and horse, sculpting them in fluid brushstrokes, yet still maintaining their precise form and movement. Horse and rider stand out almost in relief from the background troops partly because they are silhouetted against the sky, and partly because the dark horse contrasts with the white horses beyond. The remaining figures are arranged and modelled in swift hieroglyphics. This contrast is interesting because the main horse and soldier are frozen in their movement and in focus, juxtaposed to all the other figures which are standing still, but depicted blurred.
Painting en plein air also enabled Munnings to maintain the relative harmony between all the elements. The highlights on the horses, captured in tones of blue, are the same colour notes used in the shadows and the hazy sky. Even the red in the banners and tunics is echoed in the muted pink of the clouds. It has been said that in Munnings's pictures light may shine from the subject, whereas in the rest of the picture light is absorbed.
The arrangement of the picture was largely determined by the event, yet Munnings has balanced the composition by inserting dark and light elements in strategic places. The two dark horses on the left are balanced by the dark horses and building in the far distance, and the white of the few grey musician's horses and drum horse is echoed by the carefully placed cloud above. The red of the tunics is carried in a direct line across the canvas to dabs of colour on the distant red helmet plumes of the Blues and Royals.
In his autobiography, Munnings proudly writes of the experience of painting this picture, 'In spite of my noble intentions to devote the splendour of the Household Cavalry, their band and drummers, I made no further attempts until 1927. In that year I was asked by an officer leaving the regiment to paint a picture commemorating the presentation by King George V of the new Standards to the Household Cavalry. The officer wished to give the picture to the Mess. All the help I desired was given. Early one morning I saw the full-dress State rehearsal - a sight for the gods in the absence of the public. Black horses, burnished steel cuirasses, plumed helmets and swords glittering in the morning sun; the bright light, with the strains of martial music glorified the pompous ceremony - the blazonry of colour ... Who would not feel exalted, seeing rows of gold-coated bandsmen playing a stirring march as they passed by on their grey steeds, some white, some almost white, others dappled-grey; their arching necks, moved by the massed music around them, seemingly conscious of the glory and display?' (A.J. Munnings, 1951, loc. cit.).
The present work shows the Sovereign's Standard (or flag) of the Life Guards carried by a Corporal of Horse, probably the Regimental Corporal Major J.A. Sykes who started in the post in February 1927. R.C.M. Sykes is shown passing musicians from the Massed Mounted Bands of the Household Cavalry in gold uniforms on grey horses. (A painting of the Corporal of Horse, exhibited Royal Academy, 1932 and 1954, was bequeathed by Paul Mellon to the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven).
The Household Cavalry is comprised of the Life Guards and, in the right-hand distant background of the painting, the Royal Horse Guards, also called the Blues and Royals. The two regiments are distinguished by their uniforms: Life Guards wear red tunics with white helmet plumes while the Blues wear blue tunics (hence the Blues) with red plumes. The brown and white drum skewbald horse carrying the regiment's kettle drums seen behind the Corporal of Horse is the shire horse named Paddy. The large portrait of The Drum Horse is in the collection of The Life Guards Serving Officers' Trust (exhibited Royal Academy, 1922). The kettledrummer is Musician Carter, obscured in the present work, but seen more prominently in the larger version.
The Presentation of Standards ceremony, similar in purpose to Trooping the Colour during the Sovereign's Birthday Parade, is a private event in which the Sovereign presents a Standard to the Household Cavalry. The foundation of the ceremony, established in 1748, is based on Trooping the Colour in which the regimental flag or colour is presented by the Sovereign who is also Colonel-in-Chief. The Standard is then carried or 'trooped' down the ranks so that it can be identified and recognised as a rallying point in battle by the respective regiments. The troops participating in the parade are drawn from the seven regiments that comprise the Household Division; the two cavalry regiments (the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals) and the five regiments of foot guards (Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards). Standards are only carried by the Household Cavalry whereas all other cavalry regiments carry Guidons. All infantry regiments including the Foot Guards carry Colours.
The date of 1927 is important because it was the first time that the ceremony took place on Horse Guards Parade at Whitehall in London. The regiments of the Household Cavalry have since received a new Standard every ten years with interruptions only during the Second World War.
The Life Guards were gentlemen who went into exile in Holland, acting as personal body guards for King Charles II, and were formally formed in 1660. The Royal Horse Gurads, originally called the Royal Regiment of Horse, were formed in 1661. The Royal Horse Guards (the Blues) merged with the Royal Dragoons in 1969, now called the Blues and Royals.
The present work will be included in the the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Sir Alfred Munnings being prepared by Lorian Peralta-Ramos.