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Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A.,  R.W.S. (1878-1959)
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Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959)

Changing Horses

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959)
Changing Horses
signed 'A.J.Munnings' (lower right)
oil on canvas
25 x 32 in. (63.4 x 81.2 cm.)
Purchased by the present owner in New York circa 1993.
London, Sotheby's, An English Idyll, Works from private and public collections and the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum, January 2001, no. 50, p. 103, illustrated.
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Lot Essay

Changing Horses is another version of a work known by the same title, now in the Museum of Art at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, which is described by Munnings' biographer, Jean Goodman as one of his 'finest equestrian compositions' (see A.J., The Life of Alfred Munnings 1878-1959, London, 1988, p. 165).

The elegant horsewoman shown standing between the grey and black who wait patiently either side, is Violet, Munnings' second wife. Violet was very much his rock - constant and loyal in her support of his artistic aspirations. Her strident independence and acute business-sense gave Munnings direction and released him from the worldly pressures of domestic life and chafing economic practicalities. Her work behind the scenes allowed him to concentrate entirely on the project in hand and abstain from any responsibilities other than those demanded by his art. Indeed it was Violet who organised and co-ordinated Munnings' many commissions. She would, for example, would make the arrangements for Munnings to paint a favourite horse for a particular client and subsequently inform Munnings of the commitment. Munnings was in the unusual position of receiving an allowance from his wife to whom he had granted power of attorney, such was his trust and freedom. Described by Jean Goodman as 'extremely self-reliant', Violet was remarkable for a lady of her generation in taking on such responsiblities.

It was Violet's undoubted skills as a horsewoman that attracted Munnings from the beginning. When he first saw her riding a dark chestnut horse at the Richmond Horse Show in 1919 he wrote, 'Here was a subject to paint - a good-looking woman on horseback, silk hat and gardenia, all complete ...' (A.J. Munnings, The Second Burst, Bungay, 1951, p. 82). Such was Violet's dedication to helping Munnings achieve the exact element for his painting that, when the artist wanted a further study for Changing Horses of the black horse with nostrils really blowing, 'she [Violet] galloped this animal again and again round the fields, returning each time to pull up and dismount, the mare being held whilst I painted the dilated nostrils' (op. cit, p. 134).

In Changing Horses sky, distance and foreground provide three distinct dimensions. Luscious green pigment describes a verdant foreground that drops back into a misty valley of blues, violets and greys. The sky varies in tone from dark grey to eggshell blue eloquently simulating the changeable and unpredictable nature of the British climate; the weather could turn either way. The low horizon emphasises the sleek and elegant forms of the horses whose healthy frames are almost fully silhouetted against the sky and misty valley. A panoramic vision of the East Anglian countryside provides a dramatic backdrop to the composition. The contrast in pigment yet continuation of tone from foreground to middle distance increases the sense of recession and the landscape quite literally fades away.

The Pittsburgh version of Changing Horses is a monumental 48 x 78 in. canvas. Bought by the Institute in 1920 for £1,000, the painting received the highest accolade of the art world at that time, a gold medal at the Paris Salon in the same year. Apart from the dimensions, the present work can be distinguished from the Pittsburgh version by Violet's hat. Here Violet sports a bowler hat rather than a top hat, as worn in My Wife, My Horse and Myself (circa 1928, The Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum, Castle House, Dedham) see fig. 1. In both works Violet is attired in 'Busvines', a form of ladies riding habit used for side-saddle and named after the London tailor who specialised in making them. Munnings was particularly outspoken in his admiration of ladies riding side-saddle, 'I wish I had painted more women riding side-saddle before the fashion died out. A good figure in a well-cut habit is the essence of grace and symmetry. But there must have been considerable discomfort in so riding. The passing generation gradually gave it up and rode astride. If the rider is a good horse-woman, how much better the astride seat must be for a horse!' (A.J. Munnings, The Finish, Bungay, 1952, p. 27.).

Changing Horses was painted by Munnings while he and Violet were guests of Major Tommy Bouch, Master of the Belvoir Hunt. The artist recalled, 'Staying with Major Bouch, Master of Belvoir, I had used two of his horses, a black and a grey, in a large picture called Changing Horses which was afterwards purchased for the Pittsburgh Art Gallery. My wife posed as the silk-hatted lady in the centre of the picture holding the horses: the black horse on the left, his neck and shoulders sweating, nostrils blowing; the grey on the right, fresh and ready to go, with Burgess, the Belvoir second horseman, tightening the girths' (A.J. Munnings, op. cit., p. 134). An active supporter of Munnings' art, Major Bouch commissioned many works from the artist. Munnings painted his horses in a more down to earth context than the visual display of the hunt - in their stables, being exercised or groomed. Other works painted by Munnings during this visit to Belvoir and Major Bouch were exhibited among the forty-one paintings of the exhibition entitled Pictures of the Belvoir Hunt and other Scenes of Country Life held at the Alpine Club Gallery, London in April 1921. This event did much to propagate Munnings' reputation as an eminent equestrian and society portraitist.


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