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.
Munnings’ horse paintings
Munnings’ consummate skill in equine portraiture stemmed from a childhood spent admiring and sketching horses at his parents’ Suffolk mill. Today, his horse paintings remain among his most celebrated and collectable works.
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.
Around this time Munnings also 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, which sold for £262,250 at Christie’s in 2011.
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.
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. Because of the brief nature of their relationship, paintings of Carter-Wood by Munnings are scarce.
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.
In 2019, The Munnings Art Museum in Dedham exhibited 41 paintings on loan from the Canadian War Museum in Ottowa, alongside Munnings’ surviving sketchbooks from the museum’s own collection, which explore the crucial contribution of horses during the conflict.
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
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.
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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.
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.
Works by Munnings, such as A Barge on the Stour, Dedham and The Fairground illustrate 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’.
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.