PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED ENGLISH COLLECTION
One of Munnings' most important commissions in the 1920s was for the 9th Duke of Marlborough (fig. 1). He describes this commission in the second volume of his memoirs: 'One night I was sitting next to the Duke [of Marlborough] at the Other Club, he launched into the subject of traditional composition: a hunting picture of himself and Lord Ivor Churchill on horseback, on grey horses-Lord Ivor had already suggested the picture to me.
"A signpost to Melton was the thing," said the Duke; "we must have a signpost in it! Changing horses, four greys, with the second horseman in full rig; what a subject! Mind you put me on the best horse.
Father and son both sat in turn in Glebe Place [Munnings London studio] There were moments during the Duke's sitting when I called upon my inner man to make the extra effort, so exquisite and traditionally correct were his scarlet cut-away coat, his white leathers, flesh coloured tops and long stirrup-leathers. The Duke was somewhat of an actor.
Ivor approved of his father's picture. Then came Ivor's turn to sit. Again, no costumed figure could beat the one sitting on the saddle-horse: slim, with long legs, long, flesh-coloured tops to his shining boots - the cut-away coat, perfection! Ivor was on the right of the picture, his horse with lowered head a second horseman adjusting a curb chain. On the left of the picture the other second horseman held the two greys from which father and son had just dismounted, the whole scene of past glories on the chase.
The groom and horses were painted at Blenheim. A memorable visit. A palace beyond all dreams The stables, too, all in the same grand style. What noble courtyards, where I stood in cool shadow, wearing my soiled old painting-coat, with easel, canvas and paint box, ready for the fray. Then the far-off footfalls of a horse. How often have I stood expectant - waiting for a horse to come upon the scene, as that beautiful grey of Lord Ivor's came walking into the picture: shoes ringing on the granite sets of the yard. There he stood, a sight for the gods; unconscious of his good looks and what was happening. During the hard week each horse posed in turn. Only one name do I remember - Evenlode. The horse was so named after a brook in the Heythrop country which he had once jumped in good style with Lord Ivor on his back.
My account of painting those studies misses the difficulties which defied me then as they do now, and one day, they will lay me low. How beautiful a well-bred well-groomed, dappled grey with its black points, silver tail, looked in the classic stone-built courtyard! Fancy could take flight in such a setting. The horse, painted there in those surroundings, as he was looking, as it all looked - would have brought a crown of laurel to him who made the picture. Thinking of the scene, I am the more sure that the value of one thing to another is everything in painting, and comes next to drawing.' (A.J. Munnings, The Second Burst, Bungay, 1951, pp. 155-6).
Munnings, who was the consummate draftsman and an unwavering believer that an artist must master the lessons of his trade, has created five studies illustrating what he was taught. He speaks of the values with which subjects in a scene need to be bonded together to create a believable composition. Colors must relate to each other and absorb and reflect the hues and tones around them. In these studies of grey horses under a blue-grey sky, the horses's coats reflect that same color back to the viewer. The idea of reflected color was promoted by the Impressionist painters and Munnings took their color theory and applied it here. Note Munnings' use of blues and purples throughout the horses' coats but in addition he has used soft taupe and yellows reflected off the ground onto areas of the stomach and chest. The result of this achieves a perfectly balanced work and one in which the subject is enveloped by the atmosphere of the scene.
Munnings always made preliminary studies for his horse portraits as a way to get to know his subject. Like any competent portraitist, he would often include hints of the horse's disposition. The Duke's horse is painted in two slightly different positions. In one study (lot 65), the composition used for the actual portrait, the horse has its plaited mane and its tail is held proudly while its focused attention is held by the spectator. Munnings also elaborates on the chest muscles making the animal appear slightly more powerful. In the other study (lot 63), Munnings was seemingly getting to know the horse whose focus gazes to the left and beyond the viewer.
The portrait of Lord Ivor walking his mount (lot 66), varies slightly from the finished double family portrait and is painted as a completed scene. The profile of Lord Ivor's unmounted horse (lot 64) is based on the traditional side view composition that was established in the first half of the 18th century by Wooton and reinforced by Stubbs to maximize the best angle for portraying the strength, athleticism and superior breeding of the horse. Munnings has identified the fidgety and perhaps impatient attitude of Lord Ivor's mount as the grey displays annoyance as his bridle is adjusted by the groom. The horse raises it foreleg, bends his neck and mouths the bit. Munnings has captured the spontaneity of the moment by having the horse in the act of stepping out. Similarly in the double portrait (lot 62), the grey on the left shows his fatigue and fidgets as the groom undoes the other horse's girth. In addition to these works Munnings painted A Study of The Duke of Marlborough's Groom (fig. 3) which depicts the groom loosening the girth of the grey horse in the far left of the final work. Munnings also made a watercolor study of this two horse composition showing slight variation with a different groom attending to the horses (fig. 2). In all of these studies, Munnings has captured the grand nature of the finished double portrait in which the horses convey a noble character fitting for their sitters.
Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, K.G., was born in 1871 and succeeded his father in 1892. He married Conseulo Vanderbilt, the daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt and Alva Smith Belmont (fig. 5). She was a celebrated debutante at her parents' Newport residence, Marble House and it was there in August 1895 that the couple met. They married that autumn and returned to England to live at Blenheim Palace. He was Secretary of State 1903-5. They had two children John Spencer-Churchill, 10th Duke of Marlborough, J.P., D.L. (1897-1972) and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill (1898-1956) (fig. 4).
Two Grey Horses; Study for The 9th Duke of Marlborough and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill