In this painting Munnings captured the essence of elegance and grandeur of life for the English aristocracy in the pre-World War II period. The gentleman is an accomplished horseman and sits with confidence astride an elegant bay horse in a parkland landscape with imposing walls to the right and a village church in the distance. He elegantly removes his top hat as he acknowledges the viewer and engages directly with a distant audience as he rides past. It is rare for Munnings to feature his subjects looking out of the canvas as they usually look straight ahead as they ride across the scene.
The unusual gesture of holding his hat as he rides past the viewer can be traced to earlier equestrian painters such as John Ferneley Senior whose portait of Mr. George Marriott shows the sitter jumping a fence in the hunting field and holding his top hat in his right hand as he acknowledges the viewer.
The sitter is Robert Gould Shaw III, known as Bobby, who was Nancy Astor’s eldest child from her first marriage to Robert Gould Shaw II. Waldorf Astor married Nancy when bobby was 2 years old, and thus Bobby grew up at the stunning country seat at Cliveden by the Thames in England, depicted in this painting. Bobby joined the Blues and Royals Cavalry Regiment and was known as a quite brilliant horseman, winning many amateur races as a jockey . Indeed after a win at Sandown on a horse called Lee Bridge, Munnings was commissioned to paint Bobby after the race - the painting subsequently sold by Sothebys in 1998 after being de-accessioned from the Astor family.
However Bobby was also a manic-depressive, perhaps heightened by his mother’s apparent dispassion in her children. In the Summer of 1931 he was jailed for homosexuality, which was smoothly covered up so as not to cause embarrassment to the Astor family. This portrait was almost certainly painted in the early 1930’s, but strangely was kept by Munnings in his studio until purchased by an American heiress Mrs Cynthia Cary to take home to her residence at Elmcourt in Newport, Rhode Island. It is possible that the portrait was refused by the Astors due to the ongoing drama of Bobby’s imprisonment.
This has all the signs of a commissioned work. The fluid and confident brushstrokes are typical of his commissioned works in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The portrait was acquired by Cynthia Burden (1884-1966), née Hon. Cynthia Burke Roche, daughter of the 3rd Baron Fermoy, probably directly from the artist on one of her trips back to England and is first recorded in her inventory in 1935 in their house in Long Island. The connection between the Burden family and Munnings had extended back into the 1920s when Munnings had painted Cynthia's mother-in-law Mrs Burden in 1924 on his visit to Long Island. He mentions in his biography, 'There were Mr. and Mrs. Burden of Syosset, the house which was occupied by the Prince of Wales during the international polo. Dear Mrs. Burden possessed a bay horse - an old favourite. I liked Mrs. Burden and her sixteen-year-old friend, the bay. What is more, her home was perfection, and she had the right taste and was the right sort, so the picture turned out well.' (A.J. Munnings, The Second Burst, Bungay, 1951, p. 169). Cynthia Burden later married Mr. Guy Fairfax Cary, Sr.
Elm Court, the Bellevue Avenue home of the family for four generations, was furnished during the early years of the 20th century by Mrs. Cary with taste and discernment, in a style reminiscent of the distinguished English homes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ambiance was well suited to the period of the disciplines, mores and manners of her youth. Cynthia Cary was of the generation in Newport that emerged from the gilded age, possessing the self-assurance and comfortable confidence in their way of life inherent in the maturity that results from prior generations of wealth and privilege. Her life was one of quiet luxury surrounded by her friends that included Janet Auchincloss and Mary Whitehouse. After her death, Guy Cary continued to live a contented life at Elm Court which remained as it had been for years. Amongst the paintings within Elm Court was an Alfred Munnings,, then titled 'Portrait of a Gentleman on a Bay Horse'.
It is interesting to note that Mrs. Guy Fairfax Cary owned another elegant equestrian portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) entitled George Harley Drummond (1783-1855). Painted circa 1808-9 it depicts Mr. Drummond of Stanmore, Middlesex and Drumotchty, dressed in riding clothes, standing beside his grazing bay horse, his left arm upon the saddle and holding a hunting whip in his right hand. She gifted the painting to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1949 in memory of her mother Mrs. Burke Roche.
Mrs. Cynthia Cary, by 1935 and by descent to Guy Fairfax Cary JR Sold at the sale of the estate of Guy Fairfax Cary Jr - Christies New York, 8th December 2005, lot 189.