Munnings's love of the rural Norfolk landscape and lifestyle dominated his art in the first decade of the 20th century. In the summers of 1910 and 1911 he went on extended painting expeditions from his home at Swainsthorpe to the nearby Ringland Hills, making his headquarters at The Falcon Inn at Costessey. Here he found ready subjects and models in the horse dealers, families of gypsies and ponies that congregated at the fairs and public houses throughout the summer months. However, it was the images of the gypsy boy Shrimp on the artist’s ‘white’ Welsh mare that would come to define this period of Munnings’s oeuvre and create some of his most celebrated pictures.
Shrimp (fig. 1), whose real name was Fountain George Page, was so called due to his diminutive stature – he measured around five feet tall. The illegitimate son of a housemaid at Narford Hall near Swaffham, Shrimp, like Munnings, preferred horses to people and had run away from home to work with the animals that he loved. When Munnings met him through the horse dealer James Drake, he was sleeping under Drake’s caravan. In 1908, money changed hands between Drake and the artist, and Shrimp became Munnings's full-time model and horse-minder. In return, Munnings paid him a wage and bought him a new suit of clothes, consisting of a tight pair of 'dealer' trousers, a pearl-buttoned Georgian waistcoat, a cloth cap, and a yellow neckerchief. In this garb he made a handsome model with the grey mare that Drake sold to Munnings in 1910 for twenty pounds. Shrimp was not only an excellent horseman, he also had an eye for a picture, and one day in the summer of 1910 his prophecy of a change in the weather lead to one of the most outstanding paintings of their travels, The Coming Storm.
Following in the footsteps of the Impressionists, Munnings painted en plein air, capturing the play of light on the animals and landscape before him. He loaded a cart with canvases, including one forty by fifty that would ultimately become the present picture, and stationed himself in a gravelly hollow on the Ringland hills, working on that spot for several weeks in unbroken sunshine. The heat grew increasingly oppressive, and on one particular afternoon Shrimp warned Munnings of an impending break in the weather. Munnings chose to ignore the gathering thunder clouds until suddenly the light changed dramatically, at which point he swapped the canvas on his easel with an unfinished painting of the same subject on a dull day. He then worked rapidly to create an astonishing impression of Shrimp riding the Welsh mare and leading Augereau, also a grey, to safety. In The Coming Storm Munnings has caught the horses and rider in ‘the spotlight of the last ray of sunlight piercing the ominous sky.’ (J. Goodman, What a Go! The Life of Alfred Munnings, London, 1988, p. 90.)
The effect is startling. The painting retains much of the spontaneity of a plein air sketch, particularly in the loose handling of the foreground, and the deft brevity with which Munnings has captured the erect figure of Shrimp in his bright yellow neckerchief. Nevertheless, we know that Munnings continued to work on the picture at a later date when he added in the background details of the bustling fairground, presumably from memory. The painting demonstrates the increasing mastery of his brush and understanding of light and colour. For instance, the two greys are bathed in white and yellow with little splashes of blue in the grey of the shadows to heighten the effect of the beam of sunlight. The vibrant colours and thick impasto of the blue and green caravans, and the yellow highlights on the wheels, merry-go-round and gypsies’ clothing contrast with the thin layers of grey paint in the overcast sky.
The picture was later worked up by Munnings over a number of years into a larger 72 x 50 in. canvas of the same title which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1925 (no. 200) where it was purchased for £850 for the National Gallery of New South Wales (fig. 2). Whilst the catalogue for the 1928 exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum calls the present work the ‘original painting’ for The Coming Storm, due to its sheer scale and impact it cannot be considered as a study. There are also a number of key compositional differences, such as the replacement of the caravans and merry-go-round with tents in the later version. The present work was bought by two of Munnings’s important early patrons, Edward Adcock and James Hardy, presumably shortly after it was completed and it was widely exhibited during the artist’s lifetime. It remained in Hardy’s collection until the collection was sold in 1989 at Christie’s, London, when it was purchased by the present owner.
We are grateful to the Curatorial staff at The Munnings Art Museum for their assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.
This work will be included in Tradition and Modernity: the Works of Sir Alfred Munnings by Lorian Peralta-Ramos to be published 2022.