Martin Frank Stainforth (1866 – 1957) by Martha Rutledge

Martin Stainforth

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Plate in ‘Racehorses in Australia’ (Edited by Dr W H Lang, Ken Austin and Dr Stewart McKay):

Martin Frank Stainforth (1866 – 1957) by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Martin Frank Stainforth (1866-1957), artist, was born on 14 August 1866 at Martley, Worcestershire, England, one of eleven children of Rev. Frederick Stainforth, curate, and his wife Ann, née Shepherd. Taught wood-engraving by Baron Klinkicht, Martin lived in London and exhibited in 1895-99 at the Royal Academy of Arts, mostly producing Madonnas after Italian old masters. His work was chosen for exhibitions in Paris, Berlin and Brussels; it also appeared as illustrations in C. G. B. Allen’s Evolution in Italian Art (London, 1903). When wood-engraving was superseded, Stainforth switched to freelance magazine and book illustrating.

About 1908 he visited a cousin’s cattle-station in North Queensland and sketched animals. Persuaded to remain in Australia after the death of the artist Douglas Fry, in 1911 Stainforth settled in Sydney. Leasing a studio in Hunter Street, he studied the moods, ‘mannerisms and styles of horses and jockeys’; members of the racing fraternity ‘would stop to chat with the slim, little man with the full moustache, who usually wore a tweed suit, bow tie and wide Stetson hat’.

He resolved to ‘upset the tradition of racehorse portraiture started by Herring and other old timers [in which] … Every animal was shown with a ridiculously small head, tapering legs and tiny feet’. Stainforth’s first commissions, Malt King (1911) and Trafalgar (1912), ensured his success. One of his favourite assignments was to visit Melbourne for the spring carnival: he painted many Melbourne Cup winners, including Artilleryman (1919), Poitrel (1920) and Windbag (1925). He carried out commissions for the Australian Jockey and Victoria Amateur Turf clubs, Sir Samuel Hordern, Sir William Cooper, the Falkiner family and other leading owners.

Expert with oils and water-colour, Stainforth had the gift of detecting a horse’s characteristics, the skill to paint a ‘coat with such fine detail and beauty of texture that it resembles the work of a painter of miniatures’, and the ability to depict speed and movement in his work. He ‘was probably the finest painter of the racehorse ever to have worked in Australia’.

With a keen sense of wit, Stainforth liked to paint himself into crowd scenes and to comment on the nature of his subjects (he found Trafalgar ‘full of intelligence and dignity’). In 1922 he provided the illustrations for Racehorses in Australia, published by S. Ure Smith‘s Art in Australia Ltd. Stainforth exhibited with the Royal Art Society of New South Wales and in 1924 was a foundation committee-member of the Australian Water-Colour Institute.

Considering that ‘art in Australia is not a gainful profession’, he went to New Zealand about 1928 and returned to England in 1930. Stainforth was commissioned to paint Limelight (‘a bad-tempered horse’) in 1934 by King George V, Lord Derby’s Hyperion and two pictures of Carbine (from photographs) for the Duke of Portland. Late in 1934 Stainforth went to the United States of America. Known as the ‘Hermit of Broadway’, he lived at the Hotel Breslin, New York, and occasionally visited studs in Kentucky. He painted many celebrated American horses, among them War Admiral (1937). About 1949 Stainforth went home. He died at Hove, Sussex, on 22 April 1957, leaving an estate valued for probate at £17,967. Examples of his work are held by the Australian Jockey Club and by the National Museum of Racing, Saratoga Springs, New York.

Select Bibliography

  • Austin et al (eds), Racehorses in Australia (Syd, 1922)
  • Fairley, Great Racehorses in Art (Oxford, Eng, 1984)
  • Lillye, Backstage of Racing (Syd, 1985)
  • Z.L. Quarterly Magazine, Sept 1923, p 25
  • British Racehorse, Nov 1960, p 444
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Oct 1920, 15 Apr, 19 Dec 1922, 29 Mar, 5 May, 11 July 1923, 10 Jan 1925
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 25 June, 30 July, 13 Aug 1978.

Martin Stainforth

“Next to a fine picture of a lovely woman there is nothing perhaps which more strongly appeals to the aesthetic sense than a picture of a splendid thoroughbred horse”.

So wrote Dr W. J. Stewart McKay in his seminal treatise: ‘Racehorses in Australia’ with paintings by Martin Stainforth and Edited by Dr W. H. Lang, Ken Austin and Dr Stewart Mckay.

Dr McKay describes a very talented and gifted artist in his lavish encomium: ‘Martin Stainforth: An Appreciation’. An Englishman by birth Martin Stainforth settled in Australia. Visiting English critic Aylyng Arnold, who from 1906 to 1910 was special correspondent for the “London Sporting Life” wrote in 2015 on a visit to Melbourne: “I can confidently say I have seen as many portraits of horses as falls to the lot of any one man, but never have I seen anything approaching yours”.

Certainly Dr McKay agreed noting his expert methods and attention to fine detail. Martin Stainforth certainly perfected the finer points of sketching horses and turning these into exquisite paintings. This was the cutting edge technology of its day pre-dating the emergence of photography as the popular medium.

I will feature more of Martin Stainforth’s work in this record. He must have spent a lot of time in the Hunter Valley at both Arrowfield (Moses Brothers) and Widden (Thompson Family). Their great stallions are captured for posterity by his superlative animal art.