Mrs. Payne Whitney, New York
Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney (acquired from the above)
The present canvas is drawn from a small group of pictures painted at the race meetings at Ascot, Epsom, Hurst Park and Sandown Park in the 1923 and 1924 seasons. Lavery’s interest in the subject matter dates from just before the Great War when, at the invitation of Lord Derby, he painted at Newmarket in East Anglia. Busy with war commissions in the aftermath of the conflict, he did not return to the subject matter until 1923, by which time Alfred Munnings had begun to establish his reputation as the painter of paddock scenes.
Although he painted a number of races in progress, Lavery for the most part eschewed the theater of the course for the more intimate setting of the jockey’s dressing room. He achieved his first success in this regard with The Jockey’s Dressing Room at Ascot, Tate Britain shown at the Royal Academy in 1924 (RA 1924, no. 663) and purchased by the Chantrey Bequest on behalf of the National Collection. This depicts the busy race preparations, behind the scenes at a Royal meeting. (For a more general discussion of this sequence of works, see Kenneth McConkey, Sir John Lavery, 1993, Edinburgh, Canongate, pp. 175-7).
Lavery was impressed by the hubbub of the ‘weighing-in’ ritual, when the respective weights of jockeys and tack were diligently noted. It is clear that the painter enjoyed the repartee that characterised these occasions. He later recalled that in the weighing-room at Epsom, "I told a jockey that if he would sit ten minutes in the scales he would win the next race. By sheer luck he came in first. I painted 13 on a saddle-cloth in the picture. No. 13 was the next winner. After that each jockey as he went out touched me for luck. I overheard one say to an inquirer for a tip", “Ask the artist”’ (John Lavery, Life of a Painter, 1940, Cassell and Co., pp. 174-5).
The motif of the elaborate scales and weights was deployed in a number of works, most notably in, The Weighing Room, Hurst Park, (RA 1925, no. 121, Private Collection, illus McConkey 1993, p. 177), and The Weighing-in of the Derby Winner, 1924 (RA 1926, no. 499, National Horse-Racing Museum, Newmarket), in addition to the present work. When Sandown Park appeared in the series of ‘Portrait Interiors’ which Lavery exhibited in October 1925, Desmond MacCarthy noted, "Sir John Lavery has delighted here in the colours of the jockeys’ shirts, and the problem of many and much in a small space is one which stimulates his skill. He loves to deal with subjects of vivid complexity, and therefore he is specially fitted for recording in touches, which are like neat bright words …"
We see a number of these ‘neat bright words’ in the ‘colours’ of the jockeys in the background. If these painterly considerations drew the artist to the jockeys’ weighing-room, there was also an ulterior motive. In the early twenties, horse-racing, which had always been popular in Britain, aroused a much wider public interest, than hitherto, with owners, trainers and riders attracting attention in the press. Between the end of the nineteenth century and the inter-war period the sport was effectively modernized. Many of the smaller courses disappeared and larger ones like Sandown Park, at Esther in Surrey, with better amenities, developed rapidly to cater for a metropolitan public which was now motorized, read illustrated newspapers, attended picture houses and increasingly listened to radio. Prize money for important races quadrupled between 1880 and 1930 and a top jockey’s purse increased from an average one hundred guineas to over a thousand. These figures waiting to be weighed in Sandown Park were celebrities of their day.
Given privileged access to the private spaces at the racecourse, also provided the opportunity for Lavery to work towards what in The Weighing Room, Hurst Park, was in effect a group portrait of the most famous jockeys of the period. Hurst Park had its origin in a vivid sketch (Ulster Museum, Belfast; illus McConkey p. 176). Like Weighing in at Sandown Park, the Hurst Park sketch was completed on the spot. Although the present canvas is more finished than that in Belfast, spontaneity, colour and composition, in a vivid firsthand experience, are the primary motivations in both cases. As The Times noted in 1927, when Weighing in at Sandown Park was exhibited along with Lavery’s ‘portrait interiors’, ‘he enjoys himself all the time’ when confronted with ‘small elements of form and colour modified by tone … Particularly when the subject belongs to the ornamental side of civilized life’ (The Times, 3 October 1925, p. 8). Thus Sandown Park fits comfortably into the John Hay Whitney collection, adding a new dimension to the sophisticated outdoor racing scenes of Degas, Manet and Munnings.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his assistance in cataloguing this picture.
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