Munnings was introduced to the Gypsies in Hampshire by a fellow artist, Olive Branson, whom he had first met in 1904 at Frank Calderon's Summer School in Suffolk. She later became what Munnings described as 'a luxurious rambler' traveling around the country and to Ireland in a gilded Gypsy caravan, painting rural scenes as she went. Branson invited Munnings to join her in 1913 for her annual excursion to Hampshire. In the fall, Gypsy families would gather to harvest hops around the villages of Binstead and Froyle in Hampshire. Hops are an important ingredient in the brewing of beer and the hops grown in that region were of the best quality in England.
In 1913, Munnings joined Branson in Evesham, Worcestershire and walked with her for part of the journey across the Cotswolds to Alton where Munnings stationed himself at the Swan Hotel. On his first morning he was collected by Mark Stevens, a Gypsy friend of Branson’s who was to become a key asset in providing models and facilitating Munnings's needs for his annual excursions. Driving out in a cart along the old Portsmouth Road to Froyle, they found themselves in a large pasture in which the Gypsy families lived during the harvesting season. 'Standing along the hedges on each side were caravans of all shapes, sizes and descriptions. There were at least two to three hundred souls, men, women and children – not including dogs and horses – camped in this pasture' (An Artist’s Life, Museum Press 1950, p. 288). Munnings was immediately overcome by the sheer spectacle; the sounds, smells, color and variety instilled an impetus to work which would draw the artist back to this same spot to work for many years to come. 'More glamour and excitement were packed into those six weeks than a painter could well contend with' (An Artist’s Life, Museum Press 1950, p. 287). The convenience of this painting site may also have been an important factor behind Munnings's considerable enthusiasm for it, returning as he did over the years before and after the First World War. The main line from Portsmouth to London allowed him easy access to materials from an artist’s suppliers in Penzance and an available former butler’s cottage at Fulling Mill adjacent to the pasture provided a simple studio and store for his work. 'Never in my life before have I been so filled with a desire to work as I was then' (An Artist’s Life, Museum Press 1950, p. 289).
Munnings would pay the same going rate per day as a Gypsy worker could earn harvesting hops for modeling and to them he was known as ‘Mr. Money.’ The Gray, Lee, Stevens, Gregory and Loveday families, who were all ‘true or very near Romany,' all featured in Munnings's works, with Mrs. Loveday strikingly featuring in some of Munnings's most important Gypsy pictures. She can be seen in 'The Departure of the Hop Pickers' (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia) painted in 1913. Munnings declared that 'nobody could beat their style of dress,' reveling in the richly colored clothes, beads, and hooped earrings worn by his models. These models must have contrasted dramatically with the rather typically conservative dress of Edwardian England. It is likely that the present painting depicts Mrs. Loveday and was probably painted during a 1920 visit to Hampshire, as the painting was exhibited at James Connell and Sons' landmark exhibition 'Gipsies in Hampshire' in 1921. She sits next to the circular ashes of last night’s camp fire with its iron kettle hanger, her folding table draped with a cloth adjacent to the main caravan. A round ‘military’ type bell tent appears to the left of the picture which were often used as a dormitory or dry shelter and close to the warmth of the fire at night. The two wheeled cart behind would have been used for local journeys from the camp. The model’s hat is a strong motif in this composition and is featured in other of Munnings's Gypsy paintings; the artist wrote of this hat, 'and sure enough, if I needed it, the large black hat – complete with Ostrich feathers – was produced and worn' (An Artist’s Life, Museum Press 1950, p. 289).
This was a high point in his career and Munnings's mature style and tonal competence are quite evident in the present work. His confidence had been increased by his recent success with exhibitions and by his experience with the Newlyn group of painters in Cornwall with whom he had lived and worked before the war, where he painted largely en plein air. From this period onward, Munnings's artistic reputation and career was assured. Of Munnings's many Gypsy studies and paintings The Black Hat demonstrates the artist’s assured bravura style. It is a free and warmly handled painting which includes one of the finest Gypsy portraits from this prodigious period of Munnings's life.
We are grateful to Tristram Lewis for his assistance in cataloguing this work, and to Lorian Peralta-Ramos for confirming the authenticity of this work, which will be included in her forthcoming Sir Alfred Munnings catalogue raisonné.