Sir Alfred Munnings photographed at work on a racing scene in 1925. Photo Claude HarrisGetty Images. Artwork © Estate of Sir Alfred Munnings, Dedham, Essex. All rights reserved, DACS 2018

From war horses to royalty: the art of Sir Alfred Munnings

An expert guide to the British artist best known for his depiction of horses, but also a skilled portraitist and painter of landscapes. Illustrated with works offered in British Impressionism  in November, and An Adventurous Spirit  in December

Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) was one of the finest British Impressionist painters of the 20th century. His life — which was spent mainly in Constable Country in the village of Dedham, on the Suffolk-Essex border — is reflected in a body of work that largely depicts rural scenes, racing and hunting, and most commonly his favourite animal, the noble horse.

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), A Suffolk punch (recto); and Study of a horse and cart (verso). 11⅝ x 15⅛  in (32.1 x 38.3  cm). Estimate £12,000-18,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), A Suffolk punch (recto); and Study of a horse and cart (verso). 11⅝ x 15⅛ in (32.1 x 38.3 cm). Estimate: £12,000-18,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

His consummate skill in equine portraiture stemmed from a childhood spent admiring and sketching horses at his parents’ Suffolk mill. The early oil on panel A Suffolk Punch (above), which is offered at Christie’s on 20 November 2018, shows the precocious talent the young Munnings had for animal studies.

Sir Alfred Munnings’ horse paintings

Munnings’ horse paintings remain among his most celebrated works. On 13 December, as part of the An Adventurous Spirit  sale in London, Christie’s will offer The Whip, Trevelloe Wood (below, estimate: £1,000,000-1,500,000), a monumental work depicting a favourite model, Ned Osborne, on a hunter. It shows his inventive handling of paint, and an Impressionist preoccupation with capturing light and colour. 

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), The Whip, Trevelloe Wood. 40 x 50 in (101.6 x 127 cm). Estimate £1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in
An Adventurous Spirit on 13 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), The Whip, Trevelloe Wood. 40 x 50 in (101.6 x 127 cm). Estimate: £1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in An Adventurous Spirit on 13 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

The horse depicted in the work is a six-year-old Irish grey mare of 15.2 hands, purchased by Munnings for 33 guineas at a fair in Ireland. He paid for the animal with the proceeds from his first successful exhibition of horse paintings, held in 1913 at the Leicester Galleries in London.

Munnings’ attraction to gypsy life

As a young man at the turn of the 20th century, Munnings was fascinated by the vagabond existence of the gypsies and travellers he met while exploring the country on horseback. Their unconventional lifestyle and brightly coloured clothes and wagons inspired many of his early pictures, such as the painting Gypsy Campbelow, from 1906.

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), Gypsy Camp. 10⅝ x 14⅞  in (27 x 37.8  cm). Estimate £25,000-35,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), Gypsy Camp. 10⅝ x 14⅞ in (27 x 37.8 cm). Estimate: £25,000-35,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Munnings employed a young stable boy known as ‘Shrimp’, who reportedly shared his fondness for a stiff drink. Shrimp modelled for many of the artist’s pre-war pictures, such as the work Shrimp off to Market.

Munnings’ marriage to Florence Carter-Wood

Munnings married his first wife, the artist Florence Carter-Wood, in 1912, but there were problems from the outset. She tried to kill herself on their honeymoon and according to Munnings, the marriage was unhappy.

Between Munnings’ work requirements in London and fox-hunting trips to Suffolk, Carter-Wood often found herself alone at their home in Cornwall. Following an affair with a young Captain in the Monmouth Regiment called Gilbert Evans, she succeeded in taking her own life in July 1914. The ménage was the subject of the 2014 film Summer in February.

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), Portrait of Florence Munnings, at sunset. 21 x 24  in (53.4 x 61  cm). Estimate £180,000-220,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), Portrait of Florence Munnings, at sunset. 21 x 24 in (53.4 x 61 cm). Estimate: £180,000-220,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Because of the brief nature of their relationship, paintings of Carter-Wood by Munnings are scarce. On 20 November as part of Christie’s British Impressionism  sale, a rare example (above), showing Carter-Wood sitting on a wall near their Cornish home, will be among the highlights.

Munnings the war artist

At the outbreak of the First World War Munnings volunteered for service. Blindness in his right eye — the result of an accident at the age of 20 — together with his love of horses, led to him being given a civilian job processing tens of thousands of the animals as they headed to the front lines in France.

He was later posted to the Western Front, where he worked at a horse remounting depot, before being commissioned as an official war artist to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade.

Munnings painted portraits of Canadian generals and their steeds, as well as pictures of the Canadian Forestry Corps working at lumber mills. Forty-five of his war pictures were exhibited in 1919 at the Royal Academy in London in an acclaimed show that brought him widespread recognition.

Between November 30 and 3 March 2019, the National Army Museum in Chelsea, London, will be staging an exhibition dedicated to Munnings’ paintings from the First World War, exploring the crucial contribution of horses during the conflict. The exhibition will tour to The Munnings Art Museum in Dedham in summer 2019.

Munnings’ portraiture — the Astors, the Rothschilds, and the Queen

After the war, Munnings’ equine portraits attracted the attention of patrons on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Rothschild and Astor families, as well as the Dukes of Marlborough and Westminster, who all commissioned portraits. He also painted the Duke of Windsor and at the end of of his career, Queen Elizabeth II with her champion racehorse, Aureole, at the Epsom Derby, a version of which sold at Christie’s in London in 2016 for £2,098,500.

Munnings excelled as a portraitist, yet he found the travel gruelling and lamented that he longed for a quiet, carefree life and rural painting expeditions.

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878–1959), Portrait studies of Yvonne Adams, née Gates. 11 x 16 ¾  in (27.9 x 42.5  cm). Estimate £18,000-22,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878–1959), Portrait studies of Yvonne Adams, née Gates. 11 x 16 ¾ in (27.9 x 42.5 cm). Estimate: £18,000-22,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

His skill in the genre, however, is clear. The 1940s panel Portrait studies of Yvonne Adams, née Gates (above) highlights his talent in a series of four studies of the daughter of Alfred Gates, a renowned sporting pictures dealer.

Sir Alfred Munnings’ hatred of Modernism

The academic pinnacle of his career was his election as President of The Royal Academy in 1944. Always a controversialist, he railed against Modernism, which he parodied in paint and also in a speech he gave at a Royal Academy dinner which was attended by his friend Sir Winston Churchill. It was broadcast on the radio, and although it caused uproar among the artistic intelligentsia, it received much popular support.

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The author of Munnings’ catalogue raisonné, Lorian Peralta-Ramos, connects the artist’s loathing of Modernism with the sadness he felt at the disappearance of pastoral life in Britain. ‘It was heart-wrenching for him to see the horse replaced by the machine,’ says the author.

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), A barge on the Stour, Dedham. 20 x 24  in (50.8 x 61  cm). Estimate £120,000-180,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), A barge on the Stour, Dedham. 20 x 24 in (50.8 x 61 cm). Estimate: £120,000-180,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Works by Munnings, such as A barge on the Stour, Dedham  (above) and A farmstead at Stithians, Cornwall  (below) highlight how he never strayed far from his realist roots. Pictures, the artist said, were supposed ‘to fill a man’s soul with admiration and sheer joy, not to bewilder and daze him’.

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), A farmstead at Stithians, Cornwall. 7 ¼ x 10⅝  in (18.4 x 27  cm). Estimate £4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959), A farmstead at Stithians, Cornwall. 7 ¼ x 10⅝ in (18.4 x 27 cm). Estimate: £4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in British Impressionism on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

The Munnings Art Museum in Dedham

The success Munnings experienced enabled him to purchase his dream home in 1919, while still a relatively young man. Castle House in Dedham was where he lived and worked with his second wife Violet McBride until his death in 1959. 

The artist’s beloved Castle House is now, as he wished, The Munnings Art Museum, home to the largest collection of his work in the world, along with the preserved contents of his house and studio.