The white canoe is arguably the most beguiling non-equestrian subject that Munnings painted, and it became a leitmotif that he returned to for many years.
In recalling the painting's creation in his autobiography Munnings wrote:
'The scene comes back. Willows, dark reflections in the deep pool… my wife and a friend…, in summer dresses of the day, seated in a Canadian Canoe, which was fastened with cords fore and aft to overhanging boughs... What artist could resist such stillness in the air, such unchangeable grey skies, and such peace?' (A.J. Munnings, op. cit., p. 158).
Second only to equestrian pictures, rivers, and especially figures boating, became one of the most enduring themes in Munnings’s long career. The son of a miller, he grew up at Mendham Mill on the banks of the river Waveney in Norfolk. He was always attracted to its sights and sounds and later recalled in his memoirs that the river was his playground. In later life, when given a choice on a warm sunny day between a day out sailing or a day at the races, he chose the water. His first exhibit at the Royal Academy, in 1899, was Stranded (Bristol City Art Gallery) depicting two children struggling with a rowing boat caught in the reeds. Rivers feature prominently in his plein-air studies, from early twentieth century watercolours of the Waveney valley through to a series of pictures of the river Barle at Brightworthy Ford on Exmoor which capture the transient effects of light on moving water. By 1919 Munnings’s growing success as a painter enabled him to buy Castle House at Dedham close to the river Stour. He described '…my joy… in knowing that my home was near a perfect river and village in an unspoilt country'. The wooded river valley of the Stour had been home to John Constable a century earlier and Munnings felt he was returning to his spiritual home. Painting commissions kept him away from Castle House for long periods of time but he yearned to return and in May 1920 he wrote to Violet, his wife: 'We’ll have evenings on the river when I get back. I’ll do a good one of you in the canoe You see if I don’t…’ (Private Correspondence, The Munnings Art Museum, Dedham.) The present picture was the first of the renowned Canoe series painted by Munnings, and its importance was highlighted when it was chosen by the artist to be exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1924.
It shows Violet Munnings and her friend Beatrice Thomas paddling a canoe across the Stour from left to right. Munnings’s sensitivity to light and inventiveness with colour are demonstrated in the cool blue, eau-de-nil and green tones, giving a sense of the delightful shade of the river, offset by the dusky pink of the canoe’s interior. Munnings creates a rivulet of blue light which travels diagonally across the painting from the water, through the deep shadows of the willow trees, to Violet’s turquoise-blue dress. The rapid brushstrokes, use of impasto and lightness of touch demonstrate Munnings’s virtuosity as an artist and his increasing confidence as an impressionist painter.
A slightly larger companion picture, showing the canoe moving from right to left, was executed the following day under the same weather conditions and sent to the Twenty-Third Annual International Exhibition of Paintings at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, 1924. This version was sold in these Rooms, 22 November 2017, lot 67 for £728,750 (fig. 1).
Munnings continued to return to the subject of the canoe over the following decades, using a variety of models, and he exhibited canoe paintings at the Royal Academy in 1940, 1944, 1946 and 1958. Each version is painted from a slightly different perspective, subtly shifting the emphasis within the composition. They also vary in scale and proportion. Some are saturated with strong sunlight, barely shaded by the overhanging willows, while others offer a much cooler scene with faster running water and willows fleetingly reflected in the shade. This highly romantic series of pictures are a celebration of the English countryside and stand as testament to the artist’s technical virtuosity.
We are grateful to the Curatorial staff at The Munnings Art Museum for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.
This work will be included in Lorian Peralta-Ramos’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Sir Alfred Munnings.