Crème Brulee, a chestnut colt bred and raced by Lord Astor, was the winner of thirteen races in the period between 1930 and 1934, including four St.Legers. The scene here is believed to be of the paddock at Salisbury and to be a commemoration of his Salisbury Cup triumph on 19th May 1933.
Munnings’ use of the ‘saddling enclosure’ format, with the horse placed just off centre and parallel to the viewer, surrounded by small figure groups, was one with which he worked throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Although it is compositionally linked directly to earlier equestrian portraiture, such as that of George Stubbs, John Ferneley Snr. and G.F.Herring Snr., Munnings introduced the element of the event itself, making the portrait part of a snapshot of the day. This manner of presentation, which has come to be very much the ideal for modern equestrian painters, allows the artist a great deal of flexibility to bring in a range of characters that serve as a vehicle for his ability to render flamboyantly, and with verisimilitude, every surface from the polished leather boots of the jockey to the brushed felt of a bowler hat.
Munnings’ adaptation and development of this composition can be illustrated by comparison with an earlier work, The Red Prince Mare (coll. Mr & Mrs John Hay Whitney, sold Sotheby’s New York, 5th May 2004, lot 30 for a world record price) painted in 1921. Whilst the saddling of a point-to-point horse is the central element of this composition, the figures around it serve to enhance the sense of anticipation and activity. However, in Crème Brulee, the more formal setting of the racecourse opens out the composition and Munnings simplifies the cast of characters, bringing the taut energy of the horse right to the forefront of the image. Beneath a sky of high scudding clouds and bathed in spring sunshine, Crème Brulee is quite clearly ready for the race: whilst his lad is not having difficulty holding him, there is a respect for, and pride in, the power he embodies.
That Munnings felt this to be a very satisfactory composition is perhaps best shown when one compares Crème Brulee to one of his best-known paintings, Saddling Mahmoud, the Derby Winner (sold Sotheby’s, New York, 1st June 2000, lot 119). Painted more than three years after Crème Brulee, the similarities between the two compositions are striking with Munnings re-using almost exactly the right-hand group of owner and jockey. Similarly, the pose of the lad holding Mahmoud is very similar to that in Crème Brulee, and the use of a subsidiary grouping at the far left of the image is also closely related.
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