The Queen opened Newmarket’s National Heritage Centre for Horse Racing and Sporting Art last November, and it has since proven not only a commercial success but a critical one, with its gallery in the former Palace House Stables being shortlisted for the 2017 Art Fund Museum of the Year award.
Its latest exhibition, Painting Winners (August 26-April 13), is a survey of the work of Alfred Munnings, who in his prime was said by some to be the equal of George Stubbs in his ability to capture the beauty and power of the thoroughbred. Born in East Anglia in 1878, Munnings became famous around the first world war but went out of fashion in the 1950s due to his perceived hostility to modernism. What really fired his imagination was the drama and spectacle of the whole racing scene, and he had a profound and lifelong love of Newmarket, where he found the big skies and great open spaces of the heath thrillingly different to the so-called park courses such as Sandown and Kempton, which were built on enclosed land near urban centres.
Munnings liked to position himself down at the start on the famous Rowley Mile course, where he could witness close up the jockeys in their silks jostling for position and study the way that light and shadow fell on the horses’ coats and riders’ boots. He was equally skilful at evoking the poignancy of the empty paddock and stands once the action was over. There was nothing facile about these paintings; each new study was painfully hard work but always fresh and intense.
The exhibition will feature a wide selection of Munnings’ completed canvases – including many paintings of the race starts – as well as his numerous sketch books, character studies and initial drawings, alongside his palettes, tools and other personal props. When it comes to buying a Munnings, they head to auction with some frequency (keep an eye on the Modern British & 20th Century Art sale at Salisbury’s Woolley and Wallis on November 29, for which lots are currently being accepted) and prices can range from as little as £5,000 for an early watercolour (at Bonhams in 2013) to the almost £2.1m paid at Christie’s in 2016 for a painting of the Queen and her horse Aureole in the paddock at Epsom in 1954. His works are popular in the US, where collectors include the Whitney family, and the record price for a Munnings is the $7.85m realised for The Red Prince Mare, a monumental 40in x 60in oil on canvas sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 2004.