We would like to thank Lorian Peralta-Ramos for her assistance in cataloguing this work, which will be included in her forthcoming Alfred J. Munnings catalogue raisonné.
For The Start, Newmarket, Alfred Munnings closely focused on a small field of horses rearing up or pawing the ground as their jockeys carefully worked them into a line for the starting signal of a race on the artist's favorite course, the open heathlands of Newmarket. Coming almost impossibly close to the horses and tightly framing the scene around the line to eliminate any audience (and even the Starter himself!), Munnings has been particularly successful in capturing in The Start, Newmarket the powerful surge of excitement that joined horses and riders as a race came to order.
Munnings included either a finished "start" painting or a group of less polished "start"sketches in nearly every exhibition of his work from 1940 until his death. As he turned away from the formal portraits of prized horses that had been the heart of his work in the years before the second world war, Munnings concentrated ever more intently on the difficult task of turning the tension and the uncertainty of the racing moment into a painterly equivalent. Since the earliest days of his career, he had painted racing scenes. His ability to isolate telling moments in the paddock or to compose remarkably complex groupings of owners, trainers, and horses had made Munnings the unquestioned master of the English race track. But it was the most elemental pictorial problems that drove Munnings in the "start" paintings that so challenged him at the end of the 1940s. The remarkable autobiography he was writing at the same time he was painting his "starts" documents the extraordinary amount of time Munnings spent at the Newmarket course (some forty miles from his Dedham home), watching four, five, six races a day, constantly drawing small, scribbled sketches that recorded the order and incidents of various starts, striving to memorize the colors and fall of light. Later, in a converted rubbing barn right at the track, or back in the more elaborate studio at Castle House, Munnings often worked on several paintings at once, surrounded by sketches of "starts" and studies of individual horses.
It was the combination of timelessness and the immediate moment that made the Newmarket "starts" so compelling for Munnings. One of the oldest racing venues in England, hallowed by Royal sponsorship dating to the seventeenth century, Newmarket's courses were open to the sky and the expansive heathland in a way that newer tracks closer to London were not. As Munnings shaped The Start, Newmarket, he made the driven clouds and the cast shadows powerful elements in his composition. With his horses tails dusting the lefthand edge of the frame, Munnings used every line of his brush to carry the action forward: jockeys hunched and hidden, each horse a separate moment in a single horse's movement toward the forefront, a clash of scattered hooves resolved in the elegant stretching reach of the powerful bay at the front of the painting. Even the simplified, arching glimpse of horizon at the right draws the race along.
This catalogue entry was writted by Alexandra Murphy.
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