Horse racing fascinated Munnings from a very early stage in his career. After two days watching horse racing at Bungay in his home county of Suffolk, he felt that his life had changed: ‘I saw the thoroughbred horses and jockeys in bright silk colours, going off down the course…The peaceful School of Art, the smelly artist’s room faded away, and I began to live!’ (A.J. Munnings, An Artist’s Life, Bungay, 1950, p. 65).
In 1915 Munnings exhibited his first Start at the Royal Academy, which showed a line up at the St Buryan races. Munnings explored and evolved the subject matter throughout his life, and it came to dominate his work after the Second World War. His strong composition and sculptural qualities were consistent, usually depicting a horse and jockey seen in profile in the foreground and a line of other riders receding into the distance. For Munnings the start of the race epitomised the power and beauty of the horse, capturing the moment of stillness before the race begins when the horses, jockeys and spectators erupt into a mass of energy and excitement. The present scene is charged with the nervous tension of the thoroughbred horses, vividly captured through their glistening, tense bodies and their energetic pacing. The central horse’s ears are pricked forward in eagerness to get going as he strains against the pressure of the bit in his mouth as his jockey holds him back. At Newmarket, where the painting was executed, Munnings was given special permission by the clerk to position his car at the post and he kept his own horse box as a studio. He later disclosed that ‘each start is a fresh picture for me, as they have been, meeting after meeting, year after year’ (A.J. Munnings, The Finish, Bungay, 1952, p. 207).
The present lot illustrates a number of early influences on Munnings’s technique. In the early 1900s on short trips to Paris he visited the Académie Julian, the starting point for many of the most important painters of his generation. During this time it is believed that Munnings saw the work of Edgar Degas, also know for his energetic and striking racing scenes, and whose influence may be seen not only in the choice of subject matter but also in the vivid treatment of the lively horses (fig. 1). Another influence came about with the arrival of photography and the technique of cropping an image for greater impact, which Munnings experimented with in his earlier career (fig. 2). He first used the idea of cropping a scene in early 1898 in the painting Evening on the Suffolk Marshes. The artist’s fluid application of paint used to indicate the furthest jockeys and their only part-appearance convey a sense of motion and suspense.
Newmarket racecourse was considered by Munnings to be ‘the most beautiful course in the world’, and is the scene of some of his most dramatic sporting paintings. At Newmarket, Munnings was at work on one of the oldest racecourses in England, established in 1605 by King James I. In painting there, he was continuing a tradition established by Wootton, Seymour and Stubbs in the first half of the 18th century.
Responses to Munnings’s Start paintings have been consistently strong. Mary Chamot writing in 1937 (the year the present lot was executed) stated that Munnings, ‘holds the field [of sporting painting] almost alone…He is a brilliant technician, knows how to make his brush-work, as well as his colour, expressive of form, and of course he has a perfect knowledge of his subject’ (M. Chamot, Modern Painting in England, London, 1937, p. 92). In reviewing the 1938 exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in which the painting was shown, the Studio critic noted that ‘One cannot help but admire particularly the glossy sheen and streaky highlights on the bodies of his horses, giving, as they do, such strength to the animal forms’ (‘A.J. Munnings, R.A.: Painter of the Horse’, The Studio, V. 116, 1938, p. 20). In March 1984 The Start at Newmarket sold at Christie’s for £220,000, then a world record for a work by a 20th century British artist. The current record for a Start was achieved in 1998 in New York when a painting from the collection of the Los Angeles Turf Club sold for $2,312,500.
Horses remained a life-long interest for Munnings and, in his last lectures to students at London University’s Royal Veterinary College’s Medical Association, he reaffirmed this: ‘He told us if there were no horses in the world, life would not be worth living. He said he expressed his love for them through painting and by studying them and he never tired of looking at them…He spoke of the smell of dew at early morning gallops and the clatter of horse’s hoofs at the start of a race with the horses milling around, waiting to get under starter’s orders; a moment of tension with their nostrils flaring and their adrenaline slowing. ‘Always the start – never the finish,’ he said’ (J. Goodman, What A Go! The Life of Alfred Munnings, London, 1988, p. 250).
We are grateful to the Curatorial staff at The Munnings Art Museum for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.
This work will be included in Lorian Peralta-Ramos’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Sir Alfred Munnings.