Lionel Edwards’ watercolours have come to be regarded as the visual embodiment of those red-letter days with hounds, as Janet Menzies describes
Though painted long before most of us were hunting, iconic sporting artist Lionel Edwards captured red-letter days with hounds as we still imagine them today, says Janet Menzies.
For more sporting artists, Kate Lynch was inspired by the families and farming practices of the Somerset Levels. And the sculptures by Paul Jenkins perfectly encapsulate the madness and mischief of hares, but now he is adding foxes to his repertoire.
Iconic sporting artist Lionel Edwards died, aged 87, in 1966, long before most of us had even started hunting. So how can it be that when you re-imagine your own red-letter days following hounds the picture in your mind’s eye is a Lionel Edwards’ painting? Edwards depicted huge hedges, cavernous ditches and impregnable walls being cleared, in front of a backdrop of leaden skies and old, yellowed turf. Today, these images are rare even in sporting fantasies – did such scenes really exist then?
Edwards asks himself this question in his memoir, Reminiscences of a sporting artist, published in 1947, in which he writes his final chapter as though The Field was interviewing him. To the query of whether, “the incidents depicted did not really take place in that environment” he answers honestly: “Often they did not, although on several occasions, usually by chance, sometimes by careful forethought, the hunt has passed by exactly as hoped for.”
He also explains: “I often get a man and horse to act as models, to get colour, lighting and correct proportion,” and he admits to using a degree of invention and sometimes photographs. He reveals that even while riding he managed to write shorthand notes about the day’s hunting. Edwards had a tremendous output of work. Along with his famous, large-scale hunting scenes he illustrated many books, including editions of Black Beauty and Lorna Doone, and wrote several of his own books about country life and sport. As well as recording it pictorally, Edwards wanted to convey the spirit of the English countryside at the turn of the 20th century. He insists: “I believe it to be beyond the power of any artist to depict fieldsports correctly unless he has taken part in them for some years himself.”
Edwards immersed himself in hunting and horses throughout his life, generally describing different events by means of which hunt he was with at the time. When he and Ethel Wells married in 1905, the couple lived in Radley, which Edwards records as moving to the borders of the South Oxfordshire and Old Berkshire hunts. Even though they were, “too broke to keep horses,” they kept on hunting on a succession of borrowed horses.
During World War One, Edwards “had four solid years of nothing but horse” in the Army Remount Service, along with fellow sporting artists Cecil Aldin and Sir Alfred Munnings (who later became an official war artist). After the war, Edwards found his riding nerve had been damaged by riding unpredictable remounts but his art was refreshed and he produced the series Shires and provinces, following different hunts, that established his distinctive style.
In 1929, Edwards’ next hunting adventure took him to Gibraltar and Tangier as a guest of General Sir Alexander Godley. He went pig-sticking in Tangier and hunted with the Royal Calpe Hunt, whose hounds were kennelled on the Rock but hunted in Spain. Edwards remembers: “It was a strange experience going foxhunting on foreign soil, to ride out past the British sentries at Gib and then through the heavily guarded customs barrier at La Linia, through the Guardia Civile and numerous other uniformed (smaller) fry, all of whom were polite and pleasant, but quite obviously considered us mad.” The parallels with Noël Coward’s post-Imperial satirical verse Mad dogs and Englishmen are inescapable.
Of course, Edwards hunted in Ireland, with the same scattering of incidents and escapades that English guests experience today, but he admits: “Ireland is frankly beyond the understanding of the average Englishman… My first visit was too soon after ‘the Trouble’ not to be affected by the aftermath of that inglorious period… The burnt-out houses and the merely deserted ones gave the landscape a forlorn air… To use an Irishism, it is a country where the past is always present.”
Edwards was sensitive to the concept of how the present is informed by the past. His favourite medium was watercolour and there is something dreamy in his hazy brushwork. The bare branches of the trees often seem fuzzy. Is it leaf buds at the end of the season? Or could it be the soft focus of nostalgia? In his dedication to Reminiscences of a sporting artist, Edwards wrote: “This book endeavours to bring back a period that has already vanished, when life was unspoiled… I look back with pleasure to those days, and I deplore their passing, for I feel that in the succeeding years we have lost more than we have gained.” Yet today’s hunting folk would say the same of their era. His work expresses that potent collision of fantasy, nostalgia and fleeting reality that has always been at the heart of hunting – and that’s what makes it the stuff of hunting dreams.
Reminiscences of a sporting artist is widely available second-hand, and look out for The Devon and Somerset Staghounds – Edwards’ illustrations were exhibited at The Sporting Gallery to coincide with its publication in 1936.