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)

The White Canoe

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959)
The White Canoe
signed 'A.J. MUNNINGS' (lower left) and inscribed 'The white canoe' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
17 x 36 in. (43.2 x 91.4 cm.)
Private Collection, England.
Anonymous sale; Phillips, London, 9 June 1998, lot 110.
with Richard Green, London.
L. Lindsay, Alfred Munnings: Pictures of Horses and English Life, London, 1927, p. 161, as The River.
A. J. Munnings, The Second Burst, London, 1951, p. 158.
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Twenty-Third Annual International Exhibition of Paintings, 24 April - 15 June 1924, untraced.
Norwich, Castle Museum, Loan Collection of Pictures Illustrating the Work of A. J. Munnings R.A., 1928, no. 28, as The Canoe.
London, J. Leger & Son, 1956 as The White Canoe (Lady Munnings and a friend).
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Lot Essay

The White Canoe is arguably the most beguiling non-equestrian subject that Munnings painted. The subject became a leitmotif that he returned to for many years.

In recalling its creation in his autobiography Munnings wrote:

'The scene comes back. Willows, dark reflections in the deep pool… my wife and a friend…, in summer dresses of the day, seated in a Canadian Canoe, which was fastened with cords fore and aft to overhanging boughs... What artist could resist such stillness in the air, such unchangeable grey skies, and such peace?’ (Sir Alfred Munnings, The Second Burst, p. 158).

Second only to equestrian pictures, rivers and especially figures boating became the most enduring theme in Munnings’s long career. The son of a miller, he grew up at Mendham Mill on the banks of the river Waveney in Norfolk. He was always attracted to its sights and sounds and recalled in his memoirs that the river was his playground. In later life, given a choice on a warm sunny day between a day out sailing or a day at the races, he chose the water. His first exhibit at the Royal Academy, in 1899, was Stranded (Bristol City Art Gallery) depicting two children struggling with a rowing boat caught in the reeds. Rivers feature prominently in his plein-air studies, from early twentieth century watercolours of the Waveney valley through to a series of pictures of the river Barle at Brightworthy Ford on Exmoor which capture the transient effects of light on moving water.

By 1919 Munnings’s growing success as a painter enabled him to buy Castle House at Dedham close to the river Stour. He described '…my joy… in knowing that my home was near a perfect river and village in an unspoilt country’. The wooded river valley of the Stour had been home to John Constable a century earlier and Munnings felt he was returning to his spiritual home. Painting commissions kept him away from Castle House for long periods of time but her yearned to return and in May 1920 he wrote to Violet, his wife: 'We’ll have evenings on the river when I get back. I’ll do a good one of you in the canoe You see if I don’t…’ (Private Correspondence, The Munnings Art Museum, Dedham.)

Munnings painted variants of The White Canoe from the early 1920s until the Second World War and exhibited them at the Royal Academy from 1924 until 1956. The present picture, together with its slightly smaller companion, were painted within a day of each other under the same weather conditions. The first work went to the Royal Academy in 1924, where as the present picture was sold at the Twenty-Third Annual International Exhibition of Paintings at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, in the same year. They depict Violet and a friend, while the later versions, painted in the 1930s are of two models. A variant on the theme is a series entitled September Afternoon, which silhouettes the head of one of the models in front of a pink parasol, backlit by sunlight, recalling Sir John Lavery’s Boating on the Thames.

Each version is painted from a slightly different perspective, subtly shifting the emphasis within the composition. They also vary in scale and proportion. Some are saturated with strong sunlight, barely shaded by the overhanging willows, while others offer a much cooler scene with faster running water and willows fleetingly reflected in the shade. This highly romantic series of pictures are a celebration of the English countryside and stand as testament to the artist’s technical virtuosity.

We are grateful to Lorian Peralta- Ramos for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry. This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Sir Alfred Munnings.

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