By T. D. Thornton
Just after midnight on a chilly November evening 110 years ago, two liquored-up British socialites got into a heated argument over what was required by an artist to create quality works of art.
One member of the private Norwich City Club insisted that an artist must have all the comforts of a proper studio and the solitude of an undisturbed atmosphere in order to produce meaningful work.
The other gentleman, a known hothead who probably peppered his tirade with some choice epithets, raged back that the man was an idiot and that his belief was ridiculous.
To prove his point, the second man leaped from his chair, tore a pair of curtains off the wall, grabbed a stub of billiard chalk, and feverishly began sketching away. By 2 a.m. he was finished, signing his name and the date with a flourish.
The two richly nuanced works created in less-than-ideal conditions were of a steeplechase horse on one curtain and a clown flirting with a saucy pierrette on the other. Accepting praise from fellow club members, the artist exulted in having proven his point that no special studio was required. But by the next day his fragile creations had been folded up in a drawer and were well on their way to being forgotten.
Years later, when the club was preparing to move, an official pulled the chalk-on-curtain sketches out of storage. Just prior to throwing them away, the signature caught the man’s eye–the artwork had been created by none other than Sir Alfred Munnings, who in the ensuing years had risen to international prominence as one of the finest and most famous painters of equine art.
Now, more than a century later, the clown sketch, Fancy Dress Party, a framed 50″ x 42.5″ white-chalk-on-black-linen creation, is among 175 artworks on display at the Keeneland Sales Pavilion during the September Yearling Sale. It is expected to fetch in the range of $60,000 to $80,000 when it goes up for bidding at the fifth annual Sporting Art Auction, to be held in the Keeneland pavilion Sunday, Nov. 19 at 2 p.m.
Organized in conjunction with Cross Gate Gallery of Lexington, one of the country’s foremost galleries of fine sporting art, Keeneland’s portion of the auction proceeds will benefit its non-profit initiatives, including the Keeneland Library Foundation.
“Actually, we sold this piece once before. We’ve just always loved it,” said Bill Evans Meng, the director of Cross Gate Gallery, adding that several equine-related Munnings works will also be up for auction. “We thought it was just a really neat and interesting piece that we though a lot of people would get a kick out of. One thing we do with our auctions is we pride ourselves in that there’s something for everyone, and we thought this was the type of thing that people would enjoy seeing, so we went for it again.”
Upon being initially rediscovered, according to the sales catalog, Fancy Dress Party was framed and hung in the Norwich City Club’s billiard room until the club had to move buildings again. At that point it was sold. Meng said the piece is in surprisingly good shape considering that moisture or being smudged the wrong way at any time in the past century could have ruined it.
“It essentially hasn’t been handled much in those 110 years,” Meng said. “It was put away in a drawer thankfully, which I thought was pretty funny [because the artist’s] stature kind of grew during the time the piece was stored away. Condition- wise, the people who had it in the past really enjoyed it and cared for it. It has been framed, just [hung] on the wall, and not handled, so that’s worked out well.”
Other notable sporting works that can be viewed during the sales week at the Keeneland pavilion include Heading Home, a signed 30″ x 40″ oil-on-canvas by Andre Pater; A Morning’s Work, Newmarket Heath, a signed 15.25″ x 28.25 oil-on-canvas by Munnings, and Jocks Room Colors, a 40″ x 30″ oil-on-canvas by LeRoy Neiman.
The auction will also feature works by such acclaimed artists as Henry Stull and John Frederick Herring Jr., plus contemporaries Larry Wheeler, Peter Howell, Richard Stone Reeves and Quang Ho.
Catalogs are available from Sporting Art Auction representatives in the Keeneland pavilion’s Limestone Cafe or via on the auction’s website, www.thesportingartauction.com.