The Museum is celebrating a special acquisition after successfully bidding for an oil painting depicting a horse on Nantwich Racecourse, dating from 1781.
The painting – Mr Walsh’s Perdita, with jockey up, on Nantwich Racecourse – is by artist Benjamin Killingbeck who specialised in painting horses and dogs. It came up for auction at Christie’s in London and we had to act quickly to secure sufficient funding to enable us to bid.
Grants were successfully applied for from the Museums, Libraries and Archives / Victorian and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund which supplied £3,750 and The Art Fund, the UK’s leading art charity, which contributed £1,797. Nantwich Town Council provided £500.
With funding in place, the Museum was able to bid and was successful in purchasing the painting for well below estimate at £7,500.
Museum Curator Anne Wheeler said: “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Nantwich and we had to pull out all the stops to try to bring this superb painting back home. It is the only known painting of Nantwich races and as such we felt it imperative that it should come back to the town and be displayed in the Museum where the people of Nantwich and visitors to the town can all enjoy it and learn about a little-known aspect of the town’s heritage.
“Acquiring the painting was like a race in itself – we had all kinds of hurdles we had to clear before we could set our sights on winning. After sorting out the finances, etc, we had to keep our fingers crossed for things to go in our favour at the auction. During the bidding my heart was thumping and when the hammer went down confirming our bid, I felt as if I’d run and won a race myself (and I wasn’t even doing the bidding)!”
Andrew Macdonald, Acting Director of The Art Fund, said: “With its bold, yet pared down, style and muted tones, this painting captures the mood of a typical English day at the races, and is a wonderful scoop for Nantwich. The Art Fund is pleased to have helped bring the work to its rightful home, where it will shed light on the town’s hidden past and showcase the style and sporting subject matter of 18th century artist Benjamin Killingbeck.”
Janet Davies, from the V&A / MLA Purchase Grant Fund, said “We were delighted to help the Museum in its bid for this work, which is perfect for the collection: an attractive painting but also an informative record of Nantwich history.”
The Nantwich Races were held for a few days every June / July from 1729 to 1824 and were an important part of the town’s social calendar. The racecourse was on Beam Heath land in Alvaston and was particularly popular with county gentlemen who travelled to Nantwich and stayed overnight in the town.
The racecourse was ploughed up in 1824 and sadly no evidence of it remains. Many people have no idea that there was ever a racecourse in Nantwich.
To celebrate the acquisition of the painting, the Museum held a fundraising cheese and wine evening in 2009 when the new painting was officially unveiled by the then Town Mayor of Nantwich, Councillor Edith Williams.
Before unveiling the painting, the Mayor of Nantwich, Cllr Edith Williams, spoke about the work of art. She said: “I think this is a great piece in the jigsaw of Nantwich. So many people have said ‘What racecourse? We didn’t have one.’ I did speak to a gentleman who did some metal detecting some time ago and I asked ‘Did you find anything on the area?
“ ‘No, no horseshoes. Nothing. I did find some clay pipes’, he said.
“So whether the people at the races clenched their teeth and broke the pipes when they were watching the races, I don’t know. Or maybe they threw them in the air when their horse won or stamped on them when they lost.
“But it must have been a great social occasion. It was here for 100 years in Nantwich. I presume there were a lot of house parties. All the town would have been full. All the businesses would do well. A bit like our own festivals, now. Nothing has really changed in the last 200-odd years. They’re still coming in to Nantwich to enjoy our hospitality.
“It’s a wonderful coup for the museum to get this painting. It’s a marvellous museum and deserves all our support. I am so pleased to be part of this evening. I am really looking forward to seeing the picture properly. I have only ever seen copies.”
Robert Stones, thanked Cllr Williams, and then spoke about the painting before outlining his view of what a day at Nantwich Racecourse might have been like.
He said: “For those of you unaware of the fact, the picture was actually offered for sale in 1979 and I have been walking into this museum for the last I don’t know how many years and looking at the facsimile of this picture hanging on the wall and thinking: ‘Why, why, why didn’t we buy it?’ It’s such a phenomenal piece of Nantwich history, and we didn’t get it.
“As an auctioneer, I can tell you that these things just vanish off into the ether and if it goes into a collection it might not come out into the light again for another 100 years. Or more. So I was excited when Patrick Chesters discovered it was coming up for sale. He told Anne (Wheeler, Curator) and Anne told me and all of a sudden we’re just ‘This picture’s coming up for sale again.’ Absolutely incredible.
“That’s just part of it because it’s all very well saying ‘It’s coming up for sale again.’ You have got to go and buy it; you’ve got to find the funding. This picture was estimated at eight to twelve thousand pounds. A lot of money. It was so special – really, really special. When we mentioned it to Keith Cafferty (a Nantwich Town Councillor), he raced around and rattled on the doors of Nantwich Town Councillors and said: ‘Come on. We have got to do something about this. We have got to get this painting.’ You really did do the business for us, Keith, and I thank you for that. It was really great.
“And we have got to thank Anne – the star. She was the one who rolled up her sleeves and found where to get the funding from. Not easy, I can tell you. We approached V&A. I am delighted to say that Janet Davies (V&A / MLA Purchase Grant Fund) is here. She shouldered a large proportion of the cost of buying this picture. We also went to the Art Fund and they equally came up with a large sum of money in order to make sure we could secure this picture. I am delighted to see Bob Gowland and his colleague, Hanny Woods, from the Art Fund, here.
“Anne and I went to Christies in London and asked to see the painting. I think it was one of the better pictures in the auction. It’s a great addition to the collection here. There were frantic phone calls to the various parties at the V&A and the Art Fund to tell them we had seen it, we liked it, we wanted it. They rushed round, with a very limited period of time, and said we could have the money to go ahead and buy it.
“We were able to bid up to £12,000.
“I got Stephen Sparrow, our picture specialist at Peter Wilson, to bid for us. He’s ‘Mr Ice Man’. He got on the phone and bought the picture for £6,000 on the hammer – which was £2,000 less than the bottom estimate – plus the buyer’s fee.
“This picture is very special to me. It was painted in 1781 by an artist who was a sporting artist of the era. Was the jockey a local boy? Was he a relative of the owner? Indeed, who was the owner? Did Mr Walsh live in Nantwich? This painting was painted on the basis of seven minutes, or thereabouts, in 1781.”
Robert did suggest that the artist might not have seen Nantwich, given the background to the painting.
He went on: “The racecourse on Beam Heath was supposed to be circular. It wouldn’t have had white railings round it but marker posts or flags in the hedgerows. Apparently there was a wooden pavilion. We don’t know where it was. Apparently this racecourse was somewhere on the site of Alvaston Hall Hotel.
“Patrick Grange, who farmed that land, tells me there is no trace of the racecourse having been there,” he said.
Robert advised people to go to look at the painting closely and they would see that tied round the jockey’s knee was a yellow ribbon (right). “Why is it there?” he asked. “It could have been put there by a lover! Or it may have been the owner’s wife who put a ribbon round his knee as a good luck gesture. Who knows?
“The artist would have been paid quite a lot of money to do the painting, and we now have those seven minutes of history in the Museum. We are massively grateful to all those who helped us to achieve that,” said Robert.
The Town Mayor then went to the gallery where the painting was hanging – an area too small for the assembled company together to watch the ceremony – to unveil it. But she was accompanied by a small group of people, including the Mayor of Cheshire East (Cllr Margaret Simon), representatives of the bodies who helped with funding the purchase, and officials of Nantwich Museum.
The guests were, of course, able to see the painting afterwards