In spite of being born in Hong Kong (a great racing nation) and my parents being members of the Jockey Club’s country club at Beas River, I had never even stepped foot on a racecourse before I met my wife Sophy in 1996. That was the year that Helissio won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. We watched it on television and that was the first race I ever watched. Sophy’s family were always involved in racing. Her father, was member of the Jockey Club and had horses in training with Bernard Van Cutsem and then with James Toller. Sophy has always had something in training with James too.
She has always been very supportive of my painting and I think she would even like it if I were an equine Artist. The problem is that the difference between a yearling that makes £4 million at the sales and one that is led out unsold at £1000 are not that great to the untrained eye and no one would thank you for painting their Group One winner a bit offset on the near fore.
One of the greatest living racehorse painters is Susan Crawford. She trained at studio Simi where she and Julian Barrow were students together. While he specialised in houses she specialised in racehorses. There is a queue a mile long to have your horse painted by her and she is the Artist of choice for many of the owners of Group one and classic winners. This would take some getting your head round if you were at a London Art school any time after about 1960, as conventional subjects painted in this kind of realistic way was looked down on by the cognoscenti. Witness Munnings’ great popularity amongst all racegoers and the public generally and the profound lack of his pictures in public collections. If you want to annoy a highbrow in the Art world, tell them that you love Munnings. Then cover yourself up well as the spit flies with their rage. However, in the great words of Liberace, Susan Crawford is probably “crying all the way to the bank”.
It is strange that this attitude should exist today as the worship of money and success has reached such great heights in the Art world that it seems sometimes to be the only way Art is judged.
When you try and draw a horse it is VERY difficult, it requires a great level of skill and knowledge. When I put a horse in one of my paintings and show it to my wife she says; very nice darling in such a way that I know I have to try again.
Sophy has a quarter share or what is known as a leg in a horse called Loving Spirit that was running at Newbury last week and as I am friendly with one of the directors of the course I rang him up for permission to paint there. I asked if he minded if I took my white umbrella, I was slightly worried that someone would say it could spook one of the horses but he said I wouldn’t need it – “it won’t rain” he assured me.
We got to the racecourse with plenty of time to spare. I wanted to set up on the National Hunt course which runs inside the flat course so that I could get a good view of the stands and the racing and also not be in the way. It was a rotten day and as I stepped onto the course who should I pass but my friend, the director of the racecourse, Eric Penser. He was holding up an umbrella against the drizzling rain, this really appealed to my sense of humour and being both intelligent and Swedish he saw the joke immediately.
I had already got an idea of what view I wanted. This was good as it saved time, it was also bad because I was not so open to discovering an exciting composition should it suddenly loom into view. I used a viewfinder with a red filter to reduce what I saw to it’s tonal values and help me to select the composition. Being a dull day it was even more important to make a good shape to the painting.
Just after I had got started the rain came down in a deluge. Luckily I had my Jullian umbrella and I found a good place to attach it to on the lid of my French easel. I hadn’t used this easel for a number of years but my setup worked very well. The wind blew some water onto me and my palette but I survived and by about 3.30 the sun vaguely made a break through the cloud cover and I slapped a touch of blue into the sky.
Although I was standing away from any route that anyone would take to get anywhere I met a number of people. About half a dozen race-going friends came up to say hello. Then there were stall handlers, someone who may have been the clerk of the course, the course photographers, who took lots of pictures and came to check my progress before every race and document it with more photos. There was also a security guard who asked lots of questions and gave a great deal of advice such as;
guard “I see you are using muted colours, is that your style?”
me; not really, it is a very dull day today
guard; “There are lots of strong colours you could pull out if you wanted”
guard; “I suppose you have permission to be here?”
guard; “So are you going to cut the bottom half off the painting?
me; “I quite like it like that”
guard; “no, you’ve left far to much room at the bottom. A bit would be alright but that’s far too much”
and so on.
Loving Spirit ran a good race to come 5th. I didn’t put him in the painting. It is considered bad luck to have a horse painted until it has won at least a listed race, preferably a group race or even a classic. Instead I painted Snoano beating Acaster Malbis in the Haynes Hanson and Clark Conditions Stakes. You can only tell by the clock and the jockeys colours that it is that race. The whole thing was over so fast that I sort of made it up afterwards if I’m honest.
After Loving’s race Sophy went and waited for me in the car and I carried on until about 5.30 or 6pm. Then I said goodbye to my new friend the security guard and called it a day. Wet and tired but with a sense of achievement and a warm glow of happiness.