Artist Janet Thomas is commissioned to paint the portraits of Melbourne Cup winners.
Artist Janet Thomas is commissioned to paint the portraits of Melbourne Cup winners. Contributed

Janet paints a special Melbourne Cup legacy

LIKE many horse lovers, Janet Thomas has her own set of rituals surrounding the Melbourne Cup.

She studies the form guides, watches the spring racing build-up - in particular races such as the Geelong Cup and the Mackinnon Stakes - and has a cautious flutter.

But there's another ritual shared by no one else that has formed part of Mrs Thomas's Melbourne Cup experience for more than 30 years.

In the next few weeks, she will receive some photos from well-known Melbourne photographer Bruno Cannatelli, which she will use to recreate a glorious painting of the winner of Australia's most famous horse race.

Mrs Thomas is a renowned equine artist who was commissioned in 1981 to paint every winner of the Melbourne Cup since its inception, right back to when Archer won the first one in 1861 - a significant challenge when you consider photography, in particular action photography, was hardly common in the 19th century.

"For the really old ones, all I could really get were their colours and markings, and there was a series of cigarette cards that were made," the 64-year-old said.

"I try to get the shine of their coat and the glint in their eyes.

"Every horse has its own character."

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Equine artist Janet Thomas's painting of Melbourne Cup winner Hyperno from 1979.
Equine artist Janet Thomas's painting of Melbourne Cup winner Hyperno from 1979. Contributed

Capturing that character takes time, though - usually it takes her about four months to complete the works, which, at 40cm x 50cm in size, are relatively small.

"It depends on how much time I have to work on it," she said.

"If I did it full-time, it would probably take me six to eight weeks, but in reality it's a lot longer than that."

Incredibly, despite her renown in the field, she is largely self-taught.

"I'd always liked drawing and painting horses since I was little," Mrs Thomas said.

"I learned oil painting in high school, but that's about it."

The artist, from Buffalo in Victoria's picturesque south Gippsland region, was in the relatively early stages of her career when she was approached by Melbourne businessman Peter Karol to paint the Melbourne Cup winners.

The paintings were destined for a series of Melbourne Cup calendars, which have been printed every year since 1982, as well as for a special bicentennial exhibition at Caulfield's Racing Museum in 1988, opened by Bart Cummings.

In a touching twist, Mrs Thomas's paintings will form part of a special keepsake poster we will publish next week paying tribute to Cummings, who died aged 87 in August this year.

The poster will be included as part of two bumper Melbourne Cup previews we will carry on Monday and Tuesday.

The artist remembers meeting the racing industry legend a couple of times - at the Caulfield exhibition, and when she painted Leilani, a highly successful mare out of the Cummings stable.

"He was pretty quiet, really. He wasn't a big flashy talker," she said. "But he's very witty."

Equine artist Janet Thomas at an exhibition of her works in 2011 at Box Stallion Winery, a former stud and stables converted into a gallery and restaurant on Victoria's Mornington Peninsular.
Equine artist Janet Thomas at an exhibition of her works in 2011 at Box Stallion Winery, a former stud and stables converted into a gallery and restaurant on Victoria's Mornington Peninsular. contributed

Mrs Thomas said she was pleased her paintings would be used to pay tribute to the celebrated trainer, whose name was virtually synonymous with the Melbourne Cup.

While the Cup winners are Mrs Thomas's longest-running commission, they form part of a wider body of work dominated by horses but also including some portraits and landscapes.

Her biggest commission was a large mural of the famous 1987 triple dead heat at her home race course at Stony Creek.

"There have only been two or three triple dead heats in Australian horse racing history and that was one of them," she said.

The mural is dear to Mrs Thomas not just because of the moment it captures in the history of her own race club, but also because of the memories of its creation.

She completed the large work with the help of her husband Claude, who lost his battle with cancer soon after it was finished in 2007.

Mrs Thomas and her husband had bred horses together for about 20 years, but she gave it up when he died, deciding instead to watch from the sidelines.

"It's not something you do on your own - and it's so complex now," she said.



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