Artistic accolades were a constant in the life of Sir Alfred Munnings but real success came when he was forty years old. In 1919, an exhibition of forty-five war time pictures of the Canadian troops in France, won Munnings recognition as a significant painter of equestrian portraits and established his reputation amongst royalty, the aristocracy and the sophisticated racing world on both sides of the Atlantic.
Painted in the summer of 1919, this work is one of the first significant examples of the many important portrait commissions Munnings received. In the following years he was invited by some of the most renowned figures in high society to visit their stately homes and in many cases it was the families' children who were the subjects to be immortalized on canvas; Rosemary and Eddie de Rothschild riding along the Solent (Fig. 1), The Mildmay family, The Duke of Marlborough and his son (all illustrated The Second Burst after page 152) The Pulitzer children, Grace and Charles Amory (illustrated ibid after page 224), and the Honorable W.W. Astor at Cliveden (illustrated after page 216).
Of the homes he visited, Munnings fondly recalls his stay with the family of Vivian Hugh Smith, 1st Baron Bicester.
“Weald Hall, South Weald - in its park was unlike any other house I had known. It was the growth of centuries. No mind could conceive or plan such a place of different periods. It was then the home of Vivian Hugh Smith… owner of famous steeplechasing horses of today, unassuming head of an irrepressible family….It remains one of the landmarks on my working horizon….I have too great a love for parklands with deer and spreading oaks and tall elms casting cool shadows. Weald Hall had all of these and there were villagers playing cricket until the shadows lengthened and died, whilst I painted a patient father on horseback. Next in turn came a son from Eton. Then a younger brother and sister on their ponies…The Smith family were wonders in more ways than one. A stirring life in a live household” (The Second Burst 1951 page 216-217)
The Sunday cricket played in the village of South Weald must have been memorable because Munnings not only mentions it in his memoirs but he has depicted the young Smith riding in his cricket whites. Munnings painted a handful of portraits in which the sitter has not only been casually posed and dressed, but clothed in non-riding apparel. Most of these portraits however tend to have been of younger children; Daffern Seal (Fig. 2) Patricia Grace on her Pony (illustrated Wildenstein catalogue number 36) Sir William Pennington-Ramsden (collection Muncaster Castle) and The Buxton Girls (Sothebys London 19th June 1974, lot no. 81).
Stephen Smith was fifteen when the present work was painted so he is older than the above mentioned subjects. It would appear that Munnings’ choice of dressing young Smith in his cricket whites is due to either making note of the lad’s athletic ability or perhaps referencing an undisclosed event that had occurred during one of the village matches that might have impressed or humoured Munnings.
Smith’s informality is striking because traditionally, and certainly in 1919, most equestrian portraits were serious and emphasized the sitter's horsemanship. The portrait of the sitter’s father, Vivian Hugh Smith, 1st Baron Bicester, depicts formal hunting attire, complete with top hat (sold Christies London, 21st November 1995, lot no. 210). Also following convention, Lord Bicester is placed high on the horizon in relief against the sky to achieve monumentality and importance.
In contrast, in the present work, the sitter is set against a backdrop of dense foliage. The figure prominently stands out, not because he looms against the sky as in his father's picture but rather because his white trousers and shirt contrast sharply in relation to the green surroundings. This in itself is fairly unusual in Munnings compositions although it is seen in the earlier portrait of his first wife, Florence (The Morning Ride, 1913 illustrated Wildenstein 1983 no. 16).
Munnings, described himself as ‘a practicing painter of Nature’, choosing to paint primarily outdoors where only true, natural light could accurately contrast reflected sunlight and shadow. Painting ‘en plein air’ to pursue light and colour was a theory of the impressionist painters and one that Munnings championed.
Early on, Munnings had been intrigued by the idea of reflected light and how colours near a subject would be picked up and reflected by the object itself. Munnings translated this impressionist colour theory and applied it to traditional sporting art. This insight resulted in his own interpretation of light and his use of colour not normally associated with animals. He observed that “a horse’s coat, like other textures, echoes the lights of day”, a belief that fellow artist Augustus John questioned- “if you see a brown horse, why not paint it brown?”
In this present work, the bay horse is more than just various shades of browns and blacks. Munnings has used the greens from the surrounding background and obscured overhanging branches, and incorporated those hues throughout the horse’s coat. Almost the entire neck, shoulders and legs of the horse are composed of various tones of green which is also echoed as shadows in the subject’s trousers, shirt and inside of the hat as well as on the dog. This repetitive use of green throughout the entire canvas results in a composition that forms a cohesive whole. Munnings has reinforced this harmony by also using the same white hues of the clothing to express the dappled sunlight on the grass.
The inclusion of the dog, named Marigold, trotting eagerly along accompanying boy and horse, emphasizes the leisurely carefree atmosphere of the moment. On the light’s effects Munnings wrote “There is a certain depth and transparency in the well groomed coat of a horse - bay, brown or chestnut. On browns, the lights are cooler, greyer, bluer, if you like; on a bay, less cool; on a chestnut, inclining pinky-grey. On a well groomed horse in the sun, those lights are devastating”.
We are grateful to Lorian Peralta-Ramos for her assistance in cataloguing this work.
Oil on canvas
Sir Alfred J. Munnings
69 by 76cm., 27 by 30in.
Commissioned in 1919 by Vivian Hugh Smith, 1st Baron Bicester
The Hon. Honor Mildred Vivian Smith, his daughter
thence by bequest to the present owner