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Time to arrest Palmer's precipitous decline; Lynwood Palmer Robert Fountain and Neil Kennedy (Palette Press, pounds 35).

Byline: Lynwood Palmer

IN THE years either side of the Great War there were two painters you went to if you wanted your horse portrayed - Alfred Munnings and Lynwood Palmer.

Palmer had it all: The 17th Earl of Derby commissioned him to paint his Classic winners. Palmer, by all accounts, shared a mistress with the Prince of Wales. Dollars cascaded into his pockets from the Vanderbilt and Belmont fortunes in America. Even as the car and the motor bus took over the roads, he drove the flashiest four-horse coach team from the Ritz to Brighton. His patrons had to pay the equivalent of today's pounds 40,000 to secure his assent to a commission.

Since then it has been precipitous decline. His new biographers, Robert Fountain and Neil Kennedy, express a painful diffidence about whether he is worth a book at all. Three previous attempts at such a work were, they tell us, struck down by untimely death and disaster. Even his best pupil, Juliet McLeod, died young. And Palmer's paintings fetch, these days, a hundredth of those of the 'beknighted' Munnings - pounds 1,000 or pounds 1,500 in many a Christie's estimate.

Yet Fountain and Kennedy's book demonstrates, beyond question, that this has been a fall too far.

Palmer's patrons were loftily demanding. When the artist thought he had finished a portrait of Fairway, the Earl of Derby dispatched him, canvas in hand, to seek a certificate of exactitude in Newmarket from the horse's trainer, the Hon George Lambton. When he was trying to complete a picture of the 1,000 Guineas winner Tranquil and her jockey, trainer and lads, the Earl decreed that trainer Charles Morton was painted out for the sin, it would appear, of being knock-kneed. The Earl said Tranquil was too short in front of the saddle, so that was changed, and too static, so she was repainted, at a walk. Palmer seems to have had the patience of Job.

Palmer's horse portraits are, for sure, accurate. And certainly restrained, composed, even serene, which perhaps explains his failure to appeal to the more immoderate emotions of the present day.

But he was perfectly capable of bestowing character and passion on a horse. His picture of the hack of his mistress, the Countess of Warwick (shown in the book next to a lasciviously lush rendering of the lady herself, by John Singer Sargent), is vivid and appealing, though untouched by any of the contrivances of modernity.

By 1925, when Palmer painted the Derby winner Manna, he did indeed begin to indulge in some of the conventions of impressionism - if only in the sky and landscape.

Palmer, born at Linwood in Lincolnshire in 1888, had run away to America at the age of 17, and encountered, by his own account, fierce Indians and rough times.

Untrained as a painter, he was already well experienced with horses and soon found a living supervising cab horses in New York.

There his facility with brush and pen started to emerge, first with posters and drawings, and then some early commissions for paintings. He also nurtured what was to be his lifelong passion for coach horses and driving. Indeed Palmer's coaching pictures are probably his most distinctive work. For they are not Yuletide versions of times of yore, but paintings of actual coaches and teams which Americans such as Ambrose Clark, Alfred Vanderbilt and August Belmont sported through New York and then brought to England in the years before the First World War.

They consciously promoted the Coaching Revival, fastidious in its replication of classical rig and turnout, with which they managed to enthuse Lord Woolavington and other wealthy English landowners, until they were finally driven off the road at the end of the 1920s.

This book is a handsome and exhaustive account of the life and work of a painter whose virtues may yet find a new appreciation among the more discriminating horsemen and women of our time.

John Fairley is chairman of Highflyer Productions, producer of Channel 4 Racing


Tranquil in a composition reworked to satisfy the Earl of Derby
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Dec 6, 2009
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