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Audio: Sir Alfred James Munnings's Shrimp off to Market
Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959)
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Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959)

Shrimp off to Market

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1878-1959)
Shrimp off to Market
signed and dated 'A.J. Munnings/1911' (lower right)
watercolour and bodycolour, on paper
14¾ x 22 1/8 in. (37.4 x 56.2 cm.)

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Brandon Lindberg
Brandon Lindberg

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Lot Essay

The present watercolour was executed during the summer months when Munnings would purchase a small coterie of Welsh ponies from Drake, a Norwich horse dealer, then travel around East Anglia between Norfolk and Scole selecting scenic painting spots in which to place his equine subjects. Munnings would select a spot, and like the Impressionist painters, would experiment on a single theme varying weather and sun conditions.

The boy, Shrimp, originally worked for Drake but became an indispensable model/groom for Munnings mainly between the years 1909 and 1911. Shrimp was an undersized, illiterate, wild youth, of undeterminable age, who became friendly with Munnings and would hold or ride the ponies for Munnings to paint.

In his memoirs, Munnings wrote,"[Shrimp] slept under Drake's caravan and when not wanted he lay on the dusty ground or grass, smoked cigarettes, and played with the lesser dogs, lurchers and children. He was a good bareback rider and sly as a fox. On my instructions Shrimp had gone to Norwich to a tailor in Dove Street who made clothes for the [gypsy] fraternity, to be measured and fitted for the usual cut of tight cord trousers and black-fronted, sleeve waistcoat - a garment of the past, a Georgian relic He was a paintable figure" (An Artist's Life, 1950, page 211). Sharing a mutual love of horses and rural life, a symbiotic relationship began between this country lad and artist.

In this present work, not only do the horses fill the space but their bodies exceed the paper's edges, on the side and at the bottom. The idea of having a painting's subject not within the picture plane was based on eighteenth-century Japanese woodcuts but was popularised particularly in Degas' ballet scenes. This technique gives this work animation and spontaneity because our impression is that the ponies are indeed walking past our narrow field of vision. This idea was also used in the painting The Falcon Inn, Costessey (1910, sold Christie's, London, Bunting sale, 12 June 2002, lot 7). Despite the year difference in dates, it is worth noting that two of the same ponies were used in this and the present work - the white and the bay pony (this time with the specifically placed white star on its forehead).

Munnings, being so intimately familiar with his equine subjects, has captured their individual expressions. The spry, bright-eyed bay pony is held in check and clearly miffed at being jostled from behind by the other ponies. The white and near-brown ponies being led are compliantly and mindlessly plodding along.

As is a hallmark of his work, Munnings varies the focus throughout the scene. The sharpest focus is not on the rider but, as is his custom, on the head of the main equine subject - the little bay on which Shrimp is riding. The chestnut pony in front is almost blurred to suggest the forward flow of movement of the grouping. The restraint Shrimp holds on the pony almost encourages our eye to halt and to let the last two ponies catch up and enter the scene.

Watercolours are relatively rare in Munnings' oeuvre because he retired from the medium in the early 1920s claiming that it was too awkward to switch between the two mediums. From 1909 until 1911 Munnings often chose the more spontaneous medium for many painting expeditions in the open air. As he frequently stored his day's work in a wagon, working on paper was easier than slow-drying oils.

We are grateful to Lorian Peralta Ramos for her help in preparing this catalogue entry. The present watercolour will be included in her forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné of the work of Sir Alfred Munnings.

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