It took until January 1947 for Alfred Munnings to recognize the full extent of what he had achieved in 1902 with The Vagabonds. Despite his ‘antics’ that bemused the farmer near Middleton Hall in Norfolk where the picture was painted, his magnum opus did not sell at the Royal Academy exhibition that year. And although it went subsequently to his early patron, Charles Bunting, it represented considerable investment of time - and memory. (A.J. Munnings, An Artist's Life, London, 1950, p. 141. Munnings eventually sold the picture for £30.) It had been as a child wandering down this same muddy lane that he first chanced upon a gypsy encampment and ran away in fear. His initial disappointment at the lack of press acclaim in 1902 was no doubt related to the fact that this was the most extensively planned of his early compositions. When re-exhibited in the large Norwich Castle exhibition in 1928, it was accompanied by two oil and three watercolour studies, and his original pencil sketch (fig. 1). We may assume that these were reinforced by drawings and colour notes of individual horses, while a study of the man in the ‘Tilbury’ gig accompanied by a dog, remains unlocated. (op. cit., p. 140 talks of ‘gouache studies done on grey paper on the spot’ and tells us that the picture was ‘enlarged from a watercolour’ (unlocated). The unlocated study of the man in the gig is illustrated, Sotheby’s 2001, p. 11.)
However, what was so important about The Vagabonds? In this age of large exhibition-pieces, critics were used to seeing canvases that lacked the vital freshness of the studies that had gone into their making. Yet this was emphatically not the case with the present picture. Munnings recalls working on the motif, as he sought to capture the all-enveloping atmosphere of the winter landscape – a season whose savage beauties would never deter him in later years. The subject was also clear in that gypsy horse-traders were not an unusual sight in the by-ways of East Anglia. However, while much-admired forerunners such as George Clausen and Henry Herbert La Thangue had concentrated on farm-labour and the rural population, the English gypsy was from a special category, freighted with folklore and legend, and of central European origin. Wealth for these itinerants was measured in horseflesh, while their nomadic lifestyle was regarded with envy in some ‘intellectual’ quarters, and dark suspicion in the minds of the rural bourgeoisie.
Valorised in the mid-nineteenth century in George Borrow’s evergreen novel, Lavengro, The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest (1851) and its sequel The Romany Rye (1857), the gypsy became an object of great curiosity in the age of pioneering anthropologists. He was also seen as seer and sage, at the time of the formation of the Gypsy Lore Society in 1888 and although it fell into disuse in the following decade, the society was revived within a few years of Munnings’s painting, when the activities of so-called ‘Simple Lifers’ caught the imagination in some quarters of the urban intelligentsia. These new bohemians included artists like Augustus John who would take to the horse-drawn caravan, leaving new-fangled motorcars to ‘Mr Toad’. (N. Wilson, Gypsies and Gentlemen: The Life and Times of the Leisure Caravan, London, 1986, pp. 77-82 (for references to Munnings and John); see also L. Tickner, Modern Life and Modern Subjects, Yale, 2000, p. 54 ff.) Munnings led the way in this. As he recalled to his painter-friend, Norman Garstin,
In Norfolk I used to buy my various models about May – one or two ponies from this man and one from that – and get the string of them together; take my man and gypsy boy and go off with a caravan for the summer, staying in a place where I could find meadows for my ponies, an inn for myself, and a place for the caravan … (N. Garstin, ‘The Paintings of AJ Munnings’, The Studio. vol. LIX, 1913, p. 260.)
In later years this setting was provided by the Ringland Hills, but in essence, the nomadic life was prefigured in the present work. Munnings confessed that in November 1901 when studies were made for the present work, he thought himself in competition with Lucy Kemp-Welch, whose Colt-Hunting in the New Forest (fig. 1) had been one of the stars of the Academy in 1897 and was much discussed within his family circle. (Munnings 1950, p. 141.)
No doubt the drama of the chase, with its echoes of Lady Butler and Caton Woodville, appealed to the tastes of his aunts and uncles. But for a young painter who was studying Stubbs and commuting to Paris to improve his observational skills in the atelier Julian, the scene on a winter day, in a Norfolk lane was more prosaic and, in a sense, more demanding. (Munnings 1950, p. 114; Goodman, 2000, pp. 34, 37, 80-1, for Stubbs; Munnings 1950, pp. 152-9; Goodman, pp. 49-53, for Paris.) As the writer in St James’s Gazette observed, he was ‘lifting the commonplace into importance’. (‘Royal Academy, First Notice’, St James’s Gazette, 5 May 1902, p. 15.) There were no thrills in The Vagabonds, just the challenge of making his animals move in unison under the grey sky of a November day. The task, as T. Martin Wood later observed was to ‘show us the horse not cut out from the actual atmospheric conditions’ and for this, the heritage of ‘Impressionism’ and ‘the technical example of Sargent’ was vital. (T. Martin Wood, ‘The Art of AJ Munnings ARA’, The Studio, vol. LXXVII, 1919, p. 10.) In 1947, as the artist realised when visiting his early patron, the way was paved to the ‘Ford’, ‘Ringland’ and ‘Gypsy Life’ sequences of the teens and twenties. Back in 1902, The Vagabonds was prescient.
Professor Kenneth McConkey.
We are also grateful to the Curatorial staff at The Munnings Art Museum, and Lorian Peralta-Ramos for their assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.