New retrospective honors the work and life of artist Peter Williams
If there is a prettier scene than the horses at Keeneland making their way around the paddock on a gorgeous spring or fall day, it’s hard to imagine what it may be.
Artist Peter Williams has witnessed countless such days and recorded them with paint on canvas in his immediate “capture the moment” style for decades. He has taken his talent and passion for people and horses to the world’s finest race tracks around the world.
Bill Thomason, president and CEO of Keeneland, had this to say about Williams: “Peter’s unique eye beautifully captures the pageantry and color of racing. He is a treasured part of the Keeneland landscape, and his affable nature makes him a wonderful ambassador for the sport.”
A new book about the artist, titled “Peter Williams Retrospective: Paintings and People Dear to Me” and written by Lexington author Fran Taylor, has just been released. Full of images of his most beloved paintings, the volume also features many quotes and visits with some of Williams’ biggest fans and collectors, including celebrities and luminaries in the horse-racing world, many of whom have become great friends with the artist over the years.
A native of New Zealand, Williams has a special place in his heart for Kentucky and has forged many lasting friendships here in the Bluegrass. Taylor counts herself among his biggest fans.
“His talent is immeasurable, his charm undeniable. He is, in short, a treasure,” she said.
Williams recently shared his own perspective on his art and his career in an e-mail interview from his home in New Zealand.
How did your artistic career get started?
I was confined to complete bedrest for two years with glandular fever as a 4-year-old. I spent my time building model airplanes, which in turn developed my hand-eye coordination at a very early age.
How did you come to love horses as a subject for your paintings?
In New Zealand, during the war years, 1939-1945, gasoline was rationed, of course. The alternative form of transportation was four-legged.
Tragically for a boy of 6, my favorite pony was stolen from the farm. I was devastated.
However, this was no ordinary gelding. He had the uncanny intelligence to open gates. A month later, he returned home all on his own, and a little boy was overjoyed to be reunited. I was clearly bonded to horses from early childhood.
How did your relationship with Keeneland begin?
The Racing Scene Gallery in New York City commissioned me to paint leading racetracks of the world. At Keeneland, Mr. Ted Bassett, then-president of Keeneland, eventually became a great friend and opened enumerable doors that led to my current success.
Is there a particularly memorable horse that caught your eye for artistic reasons?
Each horse possesses a different personality. If you were to ask me which horses took my breath way, I would immediately tell you Secretariat or Slew o’ Gold, both of which I painted for my own gratification. The common characteristic these two mighty horses shared was that they were both very affectionate.
How did you develop your style of painting on-site as the action takes place?
I attribute my ability in painting to the late Douglas Badcock, the most outstanding New Zealand impressionist. His mentoring began in the 1960s.
He shunned copying, encouraging me always to paint from life. His advice to me was to throw away all my little brushes, reduce my palette (minimize color range), but above all, spend no more than two hours on any painting. This forced me to abbreviate, i.e., not get caught up in the details. Instead it freed the viewer’s imagination to soar.
It is a great sensory experience working from life. My head is full of horses and people trying to get out.
You have met an extraordinary number of people over the years as you painted. Tell me a little about the people that stand out in your memory.
Of course, I could mention names of royalty, heads of state and movie stars. However, the people I’m choosing to mention have a very special connection. It’s people like these to whom I owe my success. The crowning glory is that most resulted in fine friendships.
So, in no particular order, I’ll start with the famous British horse trainer, John Dunlop. I consider Arundel Castle the most beautiful horse-training setting. John graciously invited me to paint his Thoroughbred horses being exercised in his Arundel gallops.
Dr. Peter Rossdale, veterinarian extraordinaire and art aficionado, adopted me on my first visit to Newmarket, Suffolk, England. Over the years, he has been one of my finest patrons and greatest friends.
Michael Oswald, The Queen’s Studmaster at Sandringham, also an accomplished painter, facilitated my many visits. The highlight, of course, was the carriage driving in which Prince Philip was a competitor. Prince Philip, who is also an avid painter, kindly gave me the benefit of his expertise.
Leroy Neiman, American sporting artist, although possibly considered in competition with me, remained modest and supportive of my work. We formed an enduring friendship.
John Hettinger and his family were wonderful to me. In racing circles, he was one of the most beloved and respected members of the Jockey Club. John was one of my original and most enthusiastic patrons filling his homes with my creations.
And Dick Francis, famous steeplechase jockey, courageous Battle of Britain fighter pilot, luminary author and best friend. Dick turned the first sod for my other home in New Zealand.
How has it felt to pause and look back over 50 years and to see the book with so much of the work featured?
When I first held the proof copy pages in my hands, I was emotionally moved, very excited. I will be eternally grateful to Fran Taylor and Suzanne Dorman, who produced the book. The collection represents my lifetime. I know there are artists out there that are far more talented than me that have not had the lucky breaks. To put it in a nutshell, I feel very blessed and fortunate both for myself and my family.