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.
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
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.
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 Camp, below, from 1906.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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’.
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.