Munnings is known to have painted three large versions of The Ford, one of which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1911. The paintings depict a group of ponies being led across a ford, emerging from the water and confronting the viewer at close quarters. Munnings was a staunch advocate of painting en plein air and the pictures held an important place in the artist's oeuvre when he was able to experiment with his observations of the horses as they repeatedly crossed the shallow waters in front of him and he rapidly captured the effects. The artist wrote in 1950; 'I still possess those large five-foot studies. Looking at them now brings back the scene afresh. I hear myself shouting "Hi! Wake that dun horse; shove his head up!" or, to a boy with a pole, "Keep the water moving" (A.J. Munnings, An Artist's Life, 1950, p. 239). Two of these pictures are now in the collections of Wolverhampton Art Gallery and the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum in Dedham. The finished painting to which they and the present watercolour relate is now in the collection of Lord Lloyd Webber (Christie's, 12 June 2002, lot 6).
The oil paintings depicting horses at a ford were painted in the summer of 1910 in the Ringland Hills, but this watercolour is dated two years previously and is therefore an early precursor of the oils. He wrote of these pictures; 'On grey days my subject was by the shallow edge of the millstream, where farm-horses watered ... The grey-weather subject I prepared for was The Ford - grey water and dark reflections broken by lines of the current. Again what a subject! ... Standing on rising ground, looking down on the leading ponies coming out of the water, I spaced the design - cutting out the sky - using the distant country for the top portion of the picture. Ponies, water, reflections, filled the rest of the space'. Although he enjoyed painting the dappled effects of sunshine through trees and the brilliant radiance of sunlit summer days, at this time he revelled in the effects of light seen through grey skies and was frustrated when the sun shone; 'A grey ceiling of cloud - calm, serene - all was well. Then that ceiling would begin to break - silvery fissures appeared, the sun shone! Who is to describe the misery of seeing such complete, relentless transformation of everything?' (op. cit., p. 239).
The pictures of fords are studies in earth tones and painted with great energy that captures both the movement of the horses and also of the water beneath their hooves. Munnings had been fascinated by water since his childhood and was interested in trying to capture the ripples and currents of the water as it travelled its course or was disturbed by the movement of animals in the shallows. The paintings of horses crossing fords depict the pinnacle of this interest as Munnings distilled the subjects to include little landscape and to focus almost entirely on the movement of the horses and the water. Munnings had a profound and intimate knowledge of horses and a finely-tuned understanding of their behavior. It was this interest and love of the subject that he depicted that gave his paintings their conviction and energy. He never tired of painting horses and their riders and summer after summer he painted ponies. His understanding of their various natures and moods meant that he was able to observe the differences between them and capture their character as a successful portrait painter could capture the personalities of their human sitters.
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