The equestrian artist Susan Crawford chooses a picture by one of the undisputed masters of her own craft: Sir Alfred Munnings.

The Grey Horse, c.1913 (oil on canvas) by Munnings, Alfred (1878-1959); 50.8x61 cm; Private Collection; Photo © Christie's Images; English, in copyright.

The Grey Horse, c.1913 (oil on canvas) by Munnings, Alfred (1878-1959); 50.8×61 cm; Private Collection; Photo © Christie’s Images / www.bridgemanimages.com

Susan Crawford on The Grey Horse by Alfred Munnings

‘This is my favourite Munnings painting because, in its essence, it’s a superb portrait of man and horse set in a stunning composition. It’s exciting, because you can feel and smell that horse and the exuberant confidence of the lad riding bareback as he controls its power with one hand holding just a rope halter. Even the sky is stirring!

‘Munnings seems to have had such a great freshness and virility in his handling of paint. It must have been so exhilarating to be able to capture so perfectly, with only a swipe of a brush, the horse’s skin and anatomy, from light to shade. Also, to be able to achieve such quality and depth of paint. How envious am I!’

Susan Crawford is a leading equestrian artist and portrait painter

John McEwen comments on The Grey Horse

‘This was a large picture and had a history,’ Munnings wrote. ‘Begun in Cornwall, at Zennor, with Ned Osborne on “Grey Tick”, 1913. I worked at it in 1923, using the grey horse given me by Ikey Bell, coarsening him up and giving him a short dock.’

Munnings’s first reputation was made as a commercial poster artist, after a six-year apprenticeship with a lithographic printing firm in Norwich. At 20, he chose to be a professional fine artist. Shortly afterwards, he lost the sight of his right eye, spiked by a thorn when lifting a dog over a fence.

In 1909, he visited the artistic hideaway of Cornwall and he moved there in 1911. He became a lifelong friend of Laura Knight and met his first wife, Florence Carter-Wood, painter and keen horsewoman. Her father was horrified, only agreeing to the marriage if Munnings cleared £1,000 (£110,000 today) in a year. He did. Once married, the depressive Florence tried to kill herself.

In Cornwall, Munnings employed Ned Osborne, a horse-mad 17 year old, as groom-cum-model. In 1913, after a successful London exhibition, from which he dated his friendship with John Masefield, Munnings rode over to Zennor to paint, Ned tending the horses. The weather was fine and canvases were left to dry overnight in a cave. This picture of Ned at a local fair on Munnings’s newly bought Grey Tick was a product of the expedition.

Munnings’s employment of Ned had no bearing on the tragic suicide of Florence, which ended their unhappy and unconsummated marriage just before war broke out in 1914.