There are five striking oils depicting foxhunting painted entirely in black and white in the National Sporting Library & Museum’s permanent collection. The technique is called en grisaille (pronounced “ohnˈ griˈzɑ yə”), a French term meaning in gray tones. Created with mixtures of black and white pigments, these types of paintings date back to the Middle Ages.
Created by George Wright (1860-1942), the paintings were among fifteen important British sporting artworks donated to the NSLM by Felicia Warburg Rogan in 2008. Surprisingly little is known about Wright’s life and teaching. The artist, however, left behind a considerable body of work and was acknowledged as one of the top sporting artists of his day by circa 1900.
Many of Wright’s en grisaille subjects are believed to have been produced early in his career for reproduction as illustrations. Working in gray tones was a practical choice for these types of works. There was no need to use expensive color pigments if they were not intended to be seen. Painting in grayscale also allowed for better control of contrasts, shades, and tones. As an example, NSLM has a sixth painting by George Wright done in color that is an almost identical scene to the monochromatic A Treed Fox. This allows the opportunity to make a direct comparison of Wright’s color and black and white techniques.
On the left is a detail of the color painting; in the center is the color version converted to grayscale; and on the right is the actual black and white work. The composition in color is more painterly with a nuanced palette and brushstrokes. Reproduced in black and white though, it becomes muddy, and the details are difficult to see. Where the reproduction fails, the painting on the right succeeds; it has a refined illustrative quality with crisper lines and higher contrasts.
The obvious and purposeful difference between the way Wright painted the two versions reinforces the idea that the en grisaille works were intended for reproduction. To-date NSLM’s compositions have not been found reproduced, but they tell stories in their own right. Two are the same size and bear inscriptions on the bottom left corner, “In at the Death” and “The Kennels.”
In the first, the huntsman presents the brush (fox’s tail) to the lady wearing a bowler hat and riding aside. The recipient of the trophy was chosen by the Master of Foxhounds to reward participants who were skilled riders and kept at the head of the hunt field. The tradition of presenting the fox mask and brush has today become censured, but it is worthy to note that it was done with a sense of deference to the fox.
“Poor Reynard [“reynard” is French for “fox”], his day is done! No more wild raids on the sleeping countryside; no more slaughter in hen house or rabbit warren…Off from your horse, Mr. Huntsman, for the trophies of so gallant a beast are worth the saving,” wrote B. Fletcher Robinson in Sporting Pictures to describe a painting titled Killed in the Quarry by George Wright. (This 1902 folio sized art book held in the NSLM’s F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room was published in celebration of English country sports with works “reproduced in colour by the newest and most perfect process of chromo-lithography.”)
The second en grisaille painting in the NSLM’s pair, “At The Kennels,” shows the hounds obediently following the huntsman to the kennel gate, as the Master looks on and a groom has charge of the horses. The likeness of the huntsman is similar to the one depicted in The Treed Fox discussed earlier and two other en grisaille works in NSLM’s holdings. These all show instances in which the fox is just out of reach of the hound pack.
Wright is believed to have hunted with the Surrey and Old Burstow, and it is quite evident from his works that he had an intimate understanding of foxhunting and its human, equine, and canine participants. Whether or not he intended for the figures to be likenesses of recognizable individuals is unknown. He included them in other hunt scenes over time. The allure of George Wright’s en grisaille compositions evoke nostalgia for a bygone era and a sport that at the same time remains universal and timeless for those who still participate in it today.
Claudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at firstname.lastname@example.org