Last year, the NSLM received a generous bequest from the late Elizabeth Dunn Clark of Middleburg, which included a beautiful example of work by the great British sporting painter, John Frederick Herring, Sr. (English, 1795-1865).

John Frederick Herring, Sr., The Start of the Derby, 1845, oil on canvas, 28 x 48 inches, NSLM, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017

Herring was well-known for his racing scenes and portraits of all the top English thoroughbreds of the day. The Start of the Derby, 1845, is a large composition showing the chaotic lineup at the start of the race in the foreground, and great billowing skyscape above.

F. Cooke, Portrait of John Frederick Herring, c. 1860, albumen carte-de-visite, 3 1/2 in. x 2 1/4 in. (88 mm x 57 mm) image size, National Portrait Gallery, London, Given by Algernon Graves, 1916. NPG Ax14887
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The Epsom Derby, often just called “The Derby,” was first run in 1780 and takes its name from one of the event’s founders, the 12th Earl of Derby. The 1 ½ mile flat turf race is for 3 year old colts or fillies. Held every June, it is one of the most prestigious and popular races in England. The region of Epsom (the source of the famous “Epsom Salts,” which were discovered there in the 17th century) has been known for horse racing for over 400 years.

The winner of the 1845 Derby was The Merry Monarch, ridden by Foster Bell, and owned by Mr. William Gratwicke, and is shown at the center foreground of the NSLM painting.

The horse was described  in George Tattersall’s 1850 Pictorial Gallery of English Race Horses, as a “bright bay horse, sixteen hands high, and altogether a remarkably fine looking horse.”  Unfortunately, despite this attractive description, he was just a one-hit-wonder. The 1845 race was The Merry Monarch’s only career win. He became known as a fluke, and was later described (in the June 1869 issue of The Sportsman magazine) as a “a very bad horse. . . who could not possibly have finished where he did had the others only stood up.” (Ouch!)

Portraits of The Merry Monarch were painted by Herring and other contemporary equine artists. John Frederick Herring, Sr., G.W. Gratwicke’s bay colt The Merry Monarch, in a loose box, oil on canvas, 28 x 36 in. (71.1 x 91.5 cm.) (Image: Christies)

The start of the race featured more excitement than the owners and jockeys would have liked. As they were lining up for the start, one of the best ranked horses of the year, Alarm, kicked another favorite, named The Libel. The two fought, Alarm threw his jockey, and then injured himself before the race could even start. Another top favorite, Pam, fell during the race. Herring’s depiction of the scene shows the crowded chaos.

A hand-drawn key to the painting, by the artist’s son, John “Fred” Frederick Herring, Jr., labels the horse and jockey portraits shown in the foreground. 18 of the 31 entries are identified – though we hardly need the key to tell us which one is the winner, and which are the two who fought at the start!

John Frederick Herring, Jr. (English, 1815-1907), The Start of the Derby (key), c. 1845, pencil on paper, 8 1/2 x 15 1/4 inches, NSLM, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017

1845 wasn’t the first time – and certainly wouldn’t be the last – that The Derby was marked by drama. The previous year, 1844, the winning horse named Running Rein, actually turned out to be a 4-year-old imposter named Maccabeus and was disqualified. One of the most famous and tragic runnings of the Derby was in 1913, when a suffragette named Emily Davison, who was protesting the lack of women’s voting rights, ran onto the track, was struck by a horse, and later died of her injuries.

Even though The Merry Monarch turned out to be a disappointment in future races, the summer race day shown in our new painting was his time to shine.