Sporting Art – Art of the People

PUBLISHED: 10:06 06 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:06 20 February 2013



William Lacey, art expert at Halls Fine Art, Shrewsbury, offers his expert opinion on sporting art.

William Lacey, art expert at Halls Fine Art, Shrewsbury, offers his expert opinion on sporting art.

I like to think I have a fairly comprehensive collection of art reference books yet I could scarcely find a mention of sporting art. The unique vision of Turner, arguably England's sole contribution to a global art history, gets deserved acclaim as do Constable, Gainsborough and Hogarth. Only George Stubbs, the great animal painter, gets a mention in most studies of English art.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723- 1792) considered that 'history painting' was the only valid art form. He looked to the past for inspiration - the Ancient Greeks and Michaelangelo. He sought to embody a classical ideal in his work. It was art produced by an intellectual and put to an educated audience. We see the wives of Reynolds' wealthy patrons dressed in their diaphanous robes presented as Grecian or Roman goddesses. Today they seem a little ridiculous. The series of 14 'discourses', in which Reynolds, as first President of the Royal Academy, set down the lofty ideals that a would-be artist should aspire to, dictated the course of English art for over a century.

A chap wanting a picture of a favourite horse, hound or plucky gamecock was regarded as uneducated and, worse still, guilty of not wishing to 'improve' himself. Sporting art was very much the art of the people and had no intellectual merit.

This prejudiced view did nothing to deter the demand for sporting pictures, however. Those who had prospered in the industrial revolution commissioned portraits of their winning horses or their land, abundant with game. A Garden of Eden in which fashionable shooters bag woodcock and partridge at will and the lords and ladies of the hunt pass by watched by suitably deferential peasants.

The 18th century was the golden age of sporting art. George Morland, Sawrey Gilpin, Ben Marshall, Charles Towne. Samuel Howitt and many others all made a reasonable living catering for the demand. None would be accepted into the Royal Academy though.

The industrial revolution caused a mass exodus of people leaving the countryside for the cities to make their fortunes. By the mid 19th century, England had changed from an agricultural society to an industrial nation. The Victorian patrons recognised, even more keenly than the previous generation, that the soot-blackened, squalid cities they had created were a necessary evil. Industry was not pretty and certainly not something to be depicted on the drawing room wall.

Queen Victoria's favourite Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) showed The Royal Family enjoying the bounty of their estates, their favourite dogs and favourite horses. Haywood Hardy, John Frederick Herring and George Wright were much in demand for their equestrian pictures and accounts of the hunt.

Traditionally sporting pictures depicted horses and dogs engaged in either racing or hunting. This definition has broadened over the years to include associated subject matter too. Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935) was a superb painter of animals and birds. Whilst he painted a wide range of wildlife, it is his watercolour studies of game birds which command the highest prices. A good Thorburn cock pheasant can make over £20,000 at auction.

The paintings illustrated on this page show a range of subjects available to the sporting art collector. John Frederick Pasmore's harvesting scene was painted in 1854. It was obviously commissioned by the gentleman farmer who stands in the centre by the cart as his terriers prance and leap after the rats disturbed by his workmen. Halls sold this painting recently for 10,000.

A more modern work is the drawing of an Auto Union C Type racing car by Roy Nockolds (1911-1979). This work was eagerly sought after and sold for 1,500.

The depiction of a bare-knuckle boxing match is by genre painter John Lomax (1857 - 1923). This picture proved popular with collectors and eventually sold above estimate for 8,000.

An oil depicting two lady archers by Victorian artist George Elgar Hicks (1824 - 1914) is to be offered in Halls' next fine picture auction to be held on April 2 at the Welsh Bridge salerooms in Shrewsbury. Archery is seldom a subject for sporting artists and the fact that two lady archers are depicted makes this picture even more desirable. The auction estimate of this lot is between 4,000 and 6,000, though interest already shown suggests that a higher figure will be achieved.

Anyone wishing to sell or seek advice about paintings can contact Mr Lacey at Halls, Shrewsbury on 08451 309610.

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