Famous - but rarely seen - painting 'The Grey Horse' goes on display at Munnings Museum

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Famous - but rarely seen - painting 'The Grey Horse' goes on display at Munnings Museum
Jenny Hand and John Osborne © Munnings Museum.

DEDHAM.- One of Sir Alfred Munnings’ most famous and instantly recognisable paintings has gone on display in the artist’s former home in Dedham, Essex. The Grey Horse, Ned Osborne on Grey Tick is kindly on loan from a private collector and is regarded as one of Munnings's most romantic and evocative paintings.

The composition is dominated by the impressive grey mare, Grey Tick, with the artist's model and groom, Ned Osborne riding him bareback, with a fair at Zennor on the north coast of Cornwall in the background. One of the first people to see the painting on display was a true VIP, none other than Ned’s grandson, John Osborne.

“We were delighted to welcome John to the museum and to show him around the rooms and galleries and, of course, we couldn’t wait to show him the painting. This was the first time John had ever seen it ‘in the flesh’” explains Munnings Art Museum Director, Jenny Hand.

“We talked a lot about John’s grandfather, Ned, and he also told us more about his wider family. Ned, who was a hard-working young man, was extremely proud to be part of Munnings’ world and to model for him on so many occasions. When Ned and Munnings parted company at the beginning of the First World War, Ned went off to Wales and worked as a coal miner” Jenny adds.

Grey Tick was an enduring favourite of the artist and is evocatively described by Lionel Lindsay in his 1939 book A.J. Munnings, R.A. Pictures of Horses and English life: “How powerfully the Grey Horse moves, thrown by a low horizon high against the shadows of the massed cumuli, whose lit summits echo the lights of the body. The warm reflections from the belly and the cold reflections from the sky on neck and shoulders give to the literal movement of the animal a sense of actual movement in space.”

The connection between Munnings and Ned Osborne was made when the artist moved to Lamorna, in Cornwall in 1913. The artist described meeting Osborne in the first instalment of his autobiography: “My stables and studio at Lamorna were all in one; the studio, a large converted loft with a skylight, was above the stables. I found a new lad, a primitive Cornish youth. Ned was the name of this simple soul, who grew into a useful combination of groom-model, and posed for many a picture.”

The painting on display at the Munnings Art Museum is the largest and most detailed version of several that he painted of Osborne astride Grey Tick, as he described in his autobiography: “There were many other sketches and studies made at Zennor, one with Ned on the grey mare against the sky, not in the scarlet coat but with bare arms and shirt sleeves, and riding bare-back at a fair. This was bought later for a Gallery in Australia; and after the war I finished a much larger version, begun at Zennor, called The Grey Horse. Good, patient Grey Tick! I have often thought of her since, and how she helped my account at the bank.”

Much praised for his patience by the artist, it was also Ned’s skin tone and physique that suggested that he was ideally suited for equestrian paintings featuring hunting clothes, especially a scarlet coat and black cap.

When the First World War began in 1914, neither Munnings or Ned were accepted for front line duty in the War. Munnings initially continued to paint in Cornwall before enlisting with the Remounts, based at Calcot Park, near Reading while the short stature of Ned made him ideal for working in the coal mines of Wales, to serve the war effort.

Visiting the Munnings Art Museum specially to see the painting, Ned’s grandson John Osborne explained what happened after the Armistice: “He left the coal mines at Penrhiwceiber (Pentreceiber in the English derivation) near Abercynon in South Wales with his father, several brothers, and two sons, Thomas and my father John. His mother having passed away in the village in 1918. Returning to Cornwall, Ned acquired a small farm near Pendeen and not far from Zennor, where he lived until the 1960s. Horses were always in evidence on the farm, more for pleasure, as tractors took over the workload. He retired to a house at Sancreed, later moving to a retirement cottage in the village of Newbridge. He passed away in 1984, aged 93.”

Mr Osborne added: “I was born in the village of Newbridge back in 1949 and because that part of Cornwall was very poor in those days my father moved us in the mid-1950s to Hertfordshire, where my mother’s parents lived. So, I only saw my grandfather when we went to Cornwall every year on holiday, or during his rare visits to us in Hertfordshire.”

Describing how he felt seeing Ned on Grey Tick, John said: “Visiting the museum was a wonderful experience for me and as I walked in the front door it was thrilling to see the painting for the first time, right in front of me. I always remember him dressed very similarly to that in the painting, the only thing missing was his cap which was a permanent fixture on his head in his later life. I would like to thank Jenny and her colleague Marcia Whiting, for making my visit a special day in my life.”

The owner of the painting, John Innes, said: “I am delighted that the Grey Horse is on display at the Munnings Art Museum. My grandfather was a great admirer and personal friend of Munnings. He purchased a number of paintings from him of which the Grey Horse was his absolute pride. He would have been pleased to have had the opportunity to buy it and as he was a rich man then filling Munnings’ account at the bank would have been a pleasure.”

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