My favourite painting: Dan Skelton

Racehorse trainer Dan Skelton picks a classic Munnings image.

Dan Skelton on Study of ‘The Start’ by Sir Alfred Munnings

‘I’ve always been interested in how artists have depicted equine movement and I feel Munnings captured it perfectly. This start of a race scene has a number of horses in different poses, and each represents brilliantly what is going to happen on this day.

‘You can sense that the horse in the foreground is keen to get started, but that the jockey is thinking otherwise; the jockey in yellow isn’t happy with his position so is moving; the horse whose head is bowed low and the most forward of all is most likely to lead the field. Munnings lost an eye in 1898, but it certainly didn’t impede his eye for detail.’

Dan Skelton is a racehorse trainer.

John McEwen on Study of ‘The Start’

‘I think Munnings was greater than Stubbs,’ said Augustus John, after his friend’s July memorial service, to which John wore a wide-brimmed straw hat painted black for the occasion. ‘He made it move, had greater narrative quality and the groupings are better.’

This is never more applicable than to Sir Alfred Munnings’s paintings of racing starts, mostly worked on at Newmarket, where he had a rubbing house converted into a studio. The start, before the introduction of starting stalls for Flat racing, particularly challenged his ability to capture movement as the riders jockeyed for position. He wrote: ‘The grouping, the movement-colour, all dependent on the lighting; the sky. Orange satin, cerise-and-white, blue-and-yellow, emerald green — a large field waiting, waiting, regrouping. At each start determined to retain the picture in my mind.’

His attempts to convey the excitement of the finish were never so successful. But, as he said in his notoriously anti-Modern-art farewell speech as president of the Royal Academy at its 1949 annual summer show banquet: ‘I myself would rather have… a damned bad failure… than all this affected juggling, this following of what — shall we call it the School of Paris?’ This first post-war banquet was still men only, with even the five female RAs being excluded.

Munnings’s ashes were laid in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, where a memorial tablet is dedicated to him next to that of another famous artist son of a Suffolk miller, John Constable. The tablet is engraved with lines written on Munnings’s death by one of his friends, John Masefield, the then Poet Laureate: ‘O friend, how lovely are the things/The English things, you helped us to perceive.’


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