Sunday’s Sporting Art Auction Captures Horse Beauty and History

Pop Culture
“A Day at the Races,” by Nikolai Leventsev is one of the many exquisite offerings at the Sporting Art Auction on Nov. 18 at Keeneland. (Courtesy of Cross Gate Gallery)

When I was a child, there was that wondrous moment when the Sears Christmas catalog arrived in the mail. It was a book of opportunity and hope as its treasures occupied children’s minds with possibilities.  My sister would approach it like a military exercise where every page was folded and labeled with items she liked circled. She would also include a carefully handwritten itemized list of the toy’s name, page, location and price. My approach to the catalog was different.

I first slowly went through the catalog page by page looking for toy horses or horse-related items. I could not be deterred. My Christmas always involved horses and my Christmas lists were always very simple. Horses!

“Horses on the Track, Saratoga Morning,” by Peter Howell (Courtesy of Cross Gate Gallery)

I feel the same depth of excitement every year when I receive my Cross Gate Gallery catalog for their annual Sporting Art Auction. I clean off a spot on my table for note taking, make a pot of tea and sink into a comfortable chair for a long wander through the catalog. This year the cover evokes an instant response. (Saratoga! How Lovely!) British artist Peter Howell’s enchanting “Horses on the Track, Saratoga Morning” is a delicate diffused portrait of horses and riders on the main track kissed by early morning sunlight. 

I usually search for my favorite artists but stopped first at “Donkey in a Landscape” by Edward Robert Smythe (British 1810-1899). Here is an adorable little working donkey with his ears flattened as his load of bundled sticks lies on the ground. In front of him is a small dog in a conversational pose. The painting of the humble farm characters is in a gloriously ornate gold frame with exquisite filigree which contrasts with the simplicity of a farmland scene. I look up Smythe’s biography and discovered that he “abandoned a military career for art.” Oh my! That’s a story in itself. My first thought was “I wonder what his parents thought about that!”

The beauty of art is what your reaction is when you see it. Do you smile? Turn away? Or lean forward to get lost among the details? I laughed when I read that artist John Frederick Herring Jr. (Fred) was criticized for his intricate details in his paintings (“Such that the overall painting develops a worrying appearance.”) Yet it is the details that I love to pay attention to! 

I start making a list of what I am drawn to in the paintings. British painter Edmund Bristow’s “Farm Horses and Goat” features a meticulously groomed palomino. I study the details in George Morland’s “A Stable Interior” which features a saddled horse, a man in a coat, his dog and a cat in the barn window staring outside. Morland was a child prodigy who started exhibiting at age 10. He sounds like a scamp as his bio says “A rascal in his youth, he carried it over to adulthood and was known for drinking and incurring considerable debts.” 

There are many paintings of hound dogs and farm dogs. Dog artists include Franklin Voss, LeRoy Neiman, John Ferneley, and Juli Kirk. There are joyous bounding dogs on the scent, visiting horses in the stables or running through fields. Chickens! August Delierre’s painting “Cockerel” ennobles a chicken family by depicting a peaceful moment with a splash of sunlight. There are paintings of leopards, goats, ducks and ewes to be studied and admired. 

Alexa King captures the essence and personality of animals through her work in bronze. She is well known in the horse racing world for her beloved life-size sculpture of Barbaro which is located the heart of Churchill Downs and a “must see” destination for all visitors. This year she is featured in the auction with a sculpture of two terriers.

“I’ve always lived with terriers, Scotties, and Airedales. Parson Russell terriers have shared my life,” she said. “Always joyful, curious and tenacious, they have been my constant companion and guilty pleasure. So when Jane Weingartner of Lexington, Ky., asked me to sculpt her two Norfolk terriers I was excited to tackle a sculpture of both of her terrific little terriers. After spending an afternoon with my two models I decided to sculpt them hunting in the brush with one dog standing on a log while the other keenly looking for her prey. They have a rough coat so I had to work the clay to get a credible surface featuring their scruffy, small terrier look while still capturing their breed characteristics. In bronze I think they exhibit the best in a terrier!”

Everyday life is also portrayed in the pleasurable painting by John Sargent Noble (British 1846-1898) called “Passion and Patience.” Two working farm horses are tied to a wall in a barn as a farrier approaches them. His facial expression depicts a man who is wary and knows his way around horses. He is paying particular attention to the gray’s pinned ears and cocked leg. It’s implied that he’s been through this before. A small dog sits in front of the bay horse watching. The gray’s eye depicts that mischief is brewing but the farrier isn’t going to have any of it.

I leapt forward in the catalog until I found the seven paintings by Andre Pater. I love his technique and his use of light. There is a special treat this year with his noble study of Justify. I stopped and smiled broadly when I saw his painting “Bull.” My Mom loved what she called “cow paintings” and she would have loved this. His bull exudes confidence and personality. With his face partially shaded, the bull looks at the world with a wise and self-assured countenance. 

There are several paintings depicting crowd scenes at the track. I love to study them carefully as I check out the various characters; men in top hats and women in their lovely dresses and hats. It reminds me of the slideshows that America’s Best Racing produces at all the big races. Much like the paintings, their photographic series captures the thrill of a special day at the track. Similarly, American artist Frank Ashley’s painting of “Royal Ascot 1983” illustrates the pleasure of a perfect day at the track. 

“Still Water III,” by Nic Fiddian Green (Courtesy of Cross Gate Gallery)

Art can capture history. One of the most evocative offerings is a wartime sketch by Sir Alfred Munnings called “The Strathcona Horse Lines in France.” It depicts horses resting in Ennemain, France the day before the German offensive in World War I. When Munnings was 20 years old, he had been blinded in one eye. He was unable to fight so he served as the official artist of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Canadian Forestry Corps. The sketch was a study for a finished painting that now resides in the Canadian War Museum. Munnings wrote about the sketch in his autobiography. 

“Taxing my memory, I recall that we arrived at a place called Ennemain, which existed only in mounds and rubble…. On that particular morning, with the band playing, I was finishing a picture of the horses as they stood with their heads out, basking in the sun, between tattered camouflage hanging over roughly-built rows of stabling. I had been patient with each head, with eyes blinking in the sun, and was working on the sixth, which might have been somewhere to the right of the middle of the picture, when suddenly something was happening – men were running; a sergeant came along, saying: ‘Hurry up, lads! Saddle up and stand to!’ The order went along the lines, and soon those patient horses were saddled up in full marching order, mounted, and the whole brigade rode away.”

Art can cause one to pause and ponder. It can transport us to another era or country. It can bring us home with moments captured of our current favorite champions. It can excite us, challenge us or calm us. There is no art as magnificent as the horse. Nic Fiddian Green’s horse head sculpture “Still Water III” is a moment of serenity depicting a horse lowering its head to drink water. A 35-foot version of it graces London’s Marble Arch. He said, “It is a great honour that Westminster city council have made this a permanent work of art for the city. I am humbled that so many people have written to me and that I am still able to uplift and inspire people as they pass by, rushing to work.” A 72” version (edition of 3) is being offered. It would certainly grace any room with its presence.

With more than 175 pieces of art being offered, there is great variety and depth. The catalog offers moments of respite from our hectic world and a wealth of education about the artists involved. We have all stood at the track and marveled at the beauty of our sport. Horses are immortalized through art whether they are royally bred and champions or a simple farm horse. Paintings, sketches and sculptures capture a moment in time forever and I love getting lost in a piece of art. I am grateful for works that give a common horse the dignity it deserves such as John Emm’s “Portrait of a Grey Cob.” I am thrilled for the works that capture our champions on and off the track. It is a long-lasting tribute that is simply glorious! 

The Sporting Art Auction, the largest auction of its kind in the US, will be held for the sixth time on Nov. 18. Presented by Keeneland and Cross Gate Gallery, the auction offers fine sporting srt, american paintings, and sculpture. Bidding will commence in the Keeneland Sales Pavilion at 2 p.m. Eastern. You can view the catalog, videos and discover more information at

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