British Sporting Art Collection on view at VMFA

The internationally significant Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art is back on view after a year’s absence at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The re-installation features 85 paintings and seven sculptures – more works than were previously displayed and some that have not been permanently shown before, including two by George Stubbs, two by Ben Marshall and one by James Seymour.

Dr. Mitchell Merling, VMFA’s Paul Mellon Curator and head of the department of European art, says many of the paintings are now accompanied by longer labels explaining the works and their significance. “We have been able to more coherently organize the collection, while respecting Mr. Mellon’s vision,” he says. New emphasis is also placed on comic aspects of British sporting art, he adds.

Alex Nyerges, VMFA’s director, says the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Mellon Collection “is the most important international collection of British sporting art, primarily because of the wide range of artists and subjects.” He says the collection includes paintings, drawings, watercolors and prints reflecting both the variety and the quality of a uniquely British school of art during its heyday, from 1700 to 1850.

Mellon, who lived in Upperville, Va., was VMFA’s longest serving trustee. He died in 1999 at the age of 91. All of the works on view were given by Mellon.

It was in 1960 that Mellon introduced equestrian art as a new subject to American audiences when he helped organize and was a prominent lender to a VMFA exhibition, “Sport and the Horse.” In 1985, he gave the museum a major collection of English 18th- and 19th-century paintings, drawings and prints, many of the sporting art genre.

The two paintings by Stubbs (1724-1806) that have not previously been on permanent display are both oils on canvas. They are A Dappled Grey Hunter with Two Foxhounds beside a Lake, 1759-60, and Tiger, circa 1769-71. Five other Stubbs works are included in the re-installation. Merling says Stubbs brought a scientific approach to his work and actually dissected horses to more fully understand their anatomy.

Benjamin Marshall (1768-1835), who “created works with appealing naturalism and informality,” Merling says, is represented by four works. Two of them, both oils on canvas, have not been permanent displayed before. They are Colonel Henry Campbell Shooting on a Moor, circa 1806, and Noble, a Hunter, Well-Known in Kent, 1810.

The father of British sporting painting, John Wootton (1682-1764), is represented by three works, among them A Bay Horse Got by the Leedes Arabian, a circa-1715 oil on canvas. Wootton was the first to create horse portraits in a monumental manner, often making references to classical statuary, Merling says.

The comic aspects of British sporting art are represented by a popular favorite from the Mellon Collection, Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog, before 1805, by Philip Reinagle (1749-1833). Other amusing aspects of the genre are seen in paintings by John E. Ferneley Sr. (1782-1860) and John Collett (1725-1780).

Merling says he hopes that visitors will learn to admire the artists’ variety and their efforts to represent reality, “gain an appreciation for the ideal notion of a community of sportsmen, and, following in Mr. Mellon’s footsteps, learn to appreciate the intelligence and physical beauty of horses and other animals.”

VMFA’s British Sporting Art Collection has been off view for a year while the museum presented several exhibitions dedicated to Mellon’s memory.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is on the Boulevard at Grove Avenue. The galleries are open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. VMFA is an educational institution of the Commonwealth of Virginia and in 2008 celebrates 70 years as a leader in statewide arts education. Admission to the museum is free, although there may be a fee for special exhibitions. For additional information about exhibitions and programs, telephone (804) 340-1400 or visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Web site, www.vmfa.museum.

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