British Sporting Art explored the genre of Sporting Art in Britain, from horseracing and hunting to boxing, football and cricket. Central to the theme of the exhibition, which included works by George Stubbs, Sir Alfred Munnings and George Morland, was John Bowes, the founder of the Museum and the first man to lift the renowned Triple Crown. Inspired by Bowes’ love for horseracing and its importance to the story behind The Bowes Museum, this exhibition explored his prolific racing career and the wider genre of Sporting Art.
The branch of painting which has come to be known as British Sporting Art was at its height during the 18th Century, when horseracing fervour swept the nation. It was a golden age for sporting artists, the most famous of which was Stubbs, with an urge to immortalise winners on canvas. Despite it being rejected by connoisseurs as a low form of art, and by Sir Joshua Reynolds as genre painting, Stubbs was a significant presence at the Royal Academy annual exhibitions, to huge critical acclaim.
Featured in the display was the Museum’s painting, Cotherstone, by J F Herring Jnr, and John Ferneley’s Beeswing. The former was bought at auction from Christie’s in New York in 2006, Cotherstone being one of Bowes’ most successful racehorses, while the latter is on long term loan to the Museum. Beeswing won 51 from 64 races, becoming quite a celebrity, with several public houses named after her.
Artists such as Gillray, whose work also featured in the exhibition, were quite different from those depicting field sports. They produced detailed portraits of boxers and comical sporting scenes, which were reproduced in popular print form.
The exhibition considered whether this in itself is a statement about the class system in the 18th Century, particularly as the print industry became prominent. It also considered the next generation of painters – Herring Snr & Jnr and Henry Alken, who faced less prejudice than their predecessors, and will conclude with more recent sporting paintings by Munnings, whose hunting scenes are instantly recognisable. Lifelike bronzes of racehorses, deer and gundogs, by sculptor Sally Arnup, will enhance the sporting art.