Friday - 31 October 2014

Munnings hunting scene is hotly pursued in Salisbury

16 June 2014Written by Alex Capon

When it comes to 20th century sporting pictures, there is no bigger name than Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959). Earlier this month, a sale at Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury sale saw the consignment of certainly one of the more notable works by the Mendham, Suffolk-born artist to have appeared in the regions over recent times.

A huntsman and hounds was a 20½ x 22½in (53 x 57cm) oil on canvas which came from the deceased estate of a collector from Sussex. Consigned by the executors, it was estimated at £50,000-70,000 - an attractive pitch which ensured strong interest and helped it easily exceed these levels.

In fact, the Munnings was one of 48 lots from the same source, all of which got away bar one.

After a strong bidding competition emerged on the day, the picture sold at £200,000 to a London buyer - a sum which ranks as one of the highest ever seen for the artist at an auction outside London and New York.

Commercially, the ground for Munnings over the last century has gone from good to soft and back again. The artist was a fashionable figure in his heyday as his works were highly sought after but, after his death, interest began to slip and prices spent a couple of decades in the doldrums, in part due to his uncompromising stance of favouring traditional styles over modern art.

Over the last 25 years, however, the prices of his best works, including some of the more favoured racing scenes, have certainly picked up and in some instances have expanded well in advance of inflation.

Such was the case with the picture here, which had previously sold at Sotheby's in May 1990 for £40,000. The significant increase was partly due to the better general demand but also because this was a work with exceptional appeal.

Head-On View

Signed and dated 1906, A huntsman and hounds was, in fact, one of only a handful of known works depicting the horse and rider 'head-on'. Munnings may well have experimented with this more difficult compositional approach in response to seeing Lucy Kemp Welch's masterpiece Colt Hunting in the New Forest, which was painted nine years earlier and is now in the Tate.

The most famous of the small group of pictures by Munnings in this format are Hunting Morning (now in the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum in Dedham) and Going to the Meet (now in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne). However, both of these works date from c.1913 whereas the picture in Salisbury was an earlier study - was he practising his technique before attempting the fully-fledged exhibition paintings seven years later?

Another later picture in similar vein, December Morning, Cornwall, took a premium-inclusive £109,875 at Christie's in July 2013 but, although all these works were more finished paintings with brighter backgrounds and other riders present, this picture was more freely painted and this created a greater sense of movement.

The way the artist had used foreshortening with regard to the position of the animals (who are shown travelling at a slight downhill angle diagonally across the composition) was deemed particularly well conceived.

The picture at Woolley & Wallis therefore had an appeal beyond the core of buyers who focus solely on Munnings' hunting scenes. The fact that it was in attractively untouched condition also did nothing to dampen the interest.

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