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Melanie Wright

A Conversation with Artist Melanie Wright and Dr Alexandra Fletcher, Packard Curator at the National Horseracing Museum, Newmarket.

July 2021


MW:  Thank you for meeting me at the NHRM last week. It was great to see the wonderful collection of illustrations by George Denholm Armour, and also the ‘Mud Sweat and Tears  ‘exhibition, featuring paintings, photographs and archive film about the history of National Hunt racing. The museum has been an invaluable resource and inspiration during my artist residency at Newmarket in 2018/19. How did the recently redeveloped Museum come about and now combine the art collections, a living museum and racing heritage site?

AF:  The National Horseracing Museum (NHRM) was established by Major David Swannell, Lord Howard de Walden and David Oldrey to encourage the preservation of items of historic and scientific interest connected with horseracing. The museum was first housed in the Jockey Club Subscription Rooms on Newmarket High Street. The National Horseracing Museum moved to its current site in 2016 following a major redevelopment of the site supported by English Heritage, Forest Heath District Council (FHDC) and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The new premises matched the museum’s ambition to be world-class institution celebrating the development of Thoroughbred horseracing and breeding in Great Britain. Prior to that, much of the buildings had been empty and unused since the trainer Bruce Hobbs left in 1985. The site has a long association with horseracing. At its heart is Palace House – the last remains of Charles II’s palace in Newmarket. This now houses the Fred Packard galleries of sporting art combining the collection of the British Sporting Art Trust and loans of works from national institutions such as Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Next to the palace, the former Trainers House displays the collections of the National Horseracing Museum. Finally the Rothschild yard, the paddocks and area are home to our retired racehorses that are being retrained with the support of the Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) charity. NHRM holds over 8000 items in trust, relating to both the history and science of horseracing.

MW:  What are your thoughts concerning contemporary sporting art and racing art in particular?

AF: I feel sporting art is an important part of our history in Britain. I treat works we hold in our collections as valuable sources of information about social history, landscape and sport in the past. I feel they give me a window into how different aspects of society worked in past centuries. For me, contemporary sporting art has the potential to be as useful to future generations as older works are to us now. It is the art created now that will tell our descendants about our lives, thoughts and attitudes towards the world we live and compete in today. Racing art is an interesting genre with huge capacity to excite and inspire people. Among my favourite works shown in Palace House are some studies by Sir Alfred Munnings that capture the anticipation and excitement at the start of a race perfectly. 

AF: It was good to meet you and to hear about your artist residency in Newmarket and the forthcoming exhibition. How did the residency at Newmarket come about and evolve and how did you select your subject matter?

MW: The British Racing School had noticed a previous artist residency I had done in 2015/16, at Charlie Longsdon’s National Hunt Yard in Oxfordshire.  An invitation followed to visit the school at Newmarket and observe the flat racing scene at its heart, with a view to painting there.  This initiated a part time residency, spread over 2 years, based at the school, and culminating in the exhibition at D Contemporary in London W1, in September 2021.

Subject wise, there is enough inspiration at Newmarket to keep me painting for many years to come. With over 70trainers’ yards, two racetracks and a wide range of training gallops, deciding where my focus would be, was certainly a challenge, but an inspiring one! I had great fun exploring the various options and received invaluable advice and helpful introductions from the British Racing School.  Motivated by the choice of sketching opportunities, I organised early morning visits to the gallops, a stud farm to see the mares and foals, and trips to the races. If the weather was dull or wet there was Palace House or Tattersalls to enjoy in the afternoons.  Sir Mark Prescott and James Fanshawe were particularly helpful and generous with their time.  They gave access to sketch at Heath House and Pegasus Stables, and imparted the fascinating history and stories of their yards. The Jockey Club Estates arranged for me to sketch at the gallops and behind the scenes, at the Rowley Mile and the July Course.

AF: How interesting aesthetically do you find it working with both National Hunt and Flat Racing subjects? Do you have a preference between the two?

MW: Both sports have so much to offer visually. I relish a variety and contrast in subject. In purely aesthetic terms, National Hunt racing is   moody, muddy and highly atmospheric. Sketching at Cheltenham on a misty, bitterly cold winter’s day is a raw but exciting experience. Those courageous horses with their big hearts, ridden by highly skilled jump jockeys, tackling the fences and staying the distance are utterly awesome. As a result, the scale of my paintings increase and I usually work with a lower key tonal palette. Flat racing by contrast is a vibrantly colourful affair, with a huge dollop of sheer glamour. The glorious aesthetics and thrill of a day at the July Course are reflected in a high key colour palette, the lively strokes of pastel and the luminosity of watercolour. The sleek beauty of the young thoroughbreds parading in the paddock, gleaming silks ,  and  coming on to and off the course,  on a summer afternoon, made stunning material for painting. I enjoy painting both sports throughout the racing calendar year, with the shifting seasons and light.

AF: Do you have racing and art in your family background?

MW:  One of my early childhood memories is of going to watch the racehorses riding out on the gallops up at the moors above Middleham, with my grandmother, who was a watercolour artist. So exciting watching them ride out in snaking lines from the marketplace up to the moor, silhouetted against the stunning backdrop of Wensleydale. My Grandfather hunted with the Bedale, as I did.  We enjoyed the point to points at Hornby Castle, but despite growing up on a farm, near Catterick Racecourse, racing was something that didn’t feature prominently until later in my life, when it became a passion. 

AF: How important is your background with horses to your artwork?

I would say experience of riding and handling horses is absolutely essential when it comes to

painting them. I was a keen rider as a child, with pony club, hacking and some hunting. Competition riding didn’t interest me. I loved to ride out on the moors around Richmond - enjoying the freedom, and the exploration of the stunning landscape on horseback.  With the hours of grooming our horses, I learned first-hand about their bones and muscles and the feel of a horses skin. The smell of horses and the sounds of them munching at haynets,  jangling their bits, or the smart clatter of hooves, stays with me to this day - especially useful when working back in my studio, away from the subject. I trained initially as a portrait painter, but as I started to explore equestrian and landscape themes, I experienced an immediate heart connection.

AF: What does an Artist Residency offer you, in contrast to a one off commission?

MW: While I enjoy painting to commission, equine portraiture for instance, I do appreciate having an extended time period of maybe a year, or longer ,  to create a complete body of work - with time to observe and absorb the place and feeling the ambience.   It is nice to connect with the people involved, and feel a part of the team.  I leave space for the unexpected to manifest. This way, I find unforeseen subjects sometimes find me, as much as the other way round.. Such as when Sir Mark Prescott took me to see his racehorses grazing after their morning exercise up in the lush Spring woodlands above Warren Hill. What an unforgettable vision!

AF:  I have seen a printed image of the oil painting that you made of Sir Mark and his horses in the woodland. While painted freely in a loosely handled style, you have somehow managed to catch the moment, atmosphere and the very particular way in which he stands and observes his horses.

MW:  Thank you.  Creating a series of woodland setting racing paintings was definitely a highlight.  I had set out at Newmarket, with an open mind regarding subject matter, which gave me the freedom in which to explore and engage with subjects intuitively, also to experiment with different drawn and painted media.

AF: Which painters from the past have inspired you?

MW: Alfred Munnings, of course! Particularly his unfinished oil sketches at the races and gallops.  To have been given the opportunity to paint these same subjects where he had famously gone before, was both a challenge and a massive inspiration. I don’t do pastiche. I enjoy giving my  body of work a contemporary feel, while staying in the representational tradition. Whilst in Suffolk I visited the Munnings Art Museum and found so much inspiration in seeing his sketches and reading his autobiography. I am also keen on the fine drawings of John Skeaping, so fluid and full of movement. Toulouse Lautrec and Degas brought enormous skill and vivacity to their oil paintings of racing scenes in France. And Lucian Freud who had a passion for racing and horses, painted some wonderful oils of horses in a stables near his studio, employing his inimitable thickly textured mark making and brushwork.

MW:  Do you have a favourite painting at Palace House, or is it simply impossible to choose one from the collection?

AF: My favourite is an oil painting by Lucy Kemp-Welch titled ‘Colt Hunting in the New Forest’. It is an enormous painting on loan to us from Tate and hangs right at the top of Palace House. Painted in 1897 it was her first piece to be shown at the Royal Academy. You can feel the energy of the horses as they are rounded up and I love the way a grey painted right at the centre of the piece seems to be coming right out of the canvas towards you. I also appreciate the accuracy and detail with which she painted the flora of the New Forest around the ponies. Altogether it’s a painting that deserves time to linger over.

MW:  At the NHRM I have enjoyed learning more about the history of racing, and works through the centuries by artists both known and new to me.

What is your future vision for the museum and how do you envisage encouraging young art students to consider the sporting art genre in their artwork, as we look to the future and continuing this centuries old rich tradition?

AF: We at the museum are keen to engage with and encourage new artists who are interested in the genre of sporting art. We have been developing opportunities, such as artist residencies, for developing artists and offering exhibition spaces to established artists in order to both inspire and support new generations. Supporting artistic talent is part of our future vision for the museum alongside promoting public interest in the history and science of horseracing and preserving our collection and historic site for future generations to enjoy.

MW:  Thank you for your time. This has been a fascinating conversation. The Newmarket residency was the beginning of what i am sure will be an ongoing artistic connection with flat racing.  I very much look forward to seeing you at the exhibition in London in September, and future visits to the NHRM.