What do you do if you own a Munnings? Give it away to HRH THe Prince of Wales of course. The Field did...
Alfred Munnings is a name that every sportman wants on their wall. For the frugal a print, for the well-feathered a painting. He was simply an exceptional sporting artist, with an intriguing life (read Summer in February) and no one else quite hits the mark.
SIR ALFRED MUNNINGS, 1878-1959
Is there a horsy girl out there who doesn’t long to be in a Munnings painting? We weave our horses through the traffic, dutifully wearing our hi-vis tabards and approved safety helmets, but in our hearts we are hacking across open country in twill balloon jodhpurs teamed with a yellow cashmere sweater and a brown bowler hat. We are A Lady Riding a Bay Hunter.
According to Dr Bill Teatheredge, a curator of the Munnings Museum, modern country people have such a strong emotional connection with Munnings because of the artist’s own romanticism towards his subject. “Horses were his life from an early age. When he was at the Mendham water mill in Suffolk, which his father ran, there were horses there the whole time. He rode and hunted and went to the races. His second wife, Violet, was an expert horsewoman who rode at Olympia. His career spanned nearly seven decades. He was born in 1878 and lived through the Edwardian era and two world wars, right up to the modern age – which he didn’t like at all.”
So it isn’t surprising if we find an infectious sense of nostalgia in those iconic images of society ladies cantering across endless horizons, or gypsy boys trotting up their horses at the market. As Munnings saw life changing around him, those were the scenes he wanted to capture. “This comes across very clearly in his autobiography, where he writes about his love of the countryside and his memories of the old days,” Teatheredge points out. “He was nostalgic for those times, which he had always portrayed so well. As modernism took over the art world, he stuck to his genre – but he had tremendous skill. His colour, light and tone are the things that really bring his paintings to life.”
Munnings was awarded his knighthood in 1944, the year of his election as president of the Royal Academy of Art. But his dislike of Picasso’s work made him no friends in the art world and it became fashionable to deride him as a Victorian romanticist. The Field, however, didn’t bother with all this intellectual snobbery and when the moment came to present a portrait to the then Prince of Wales in 1921, it was a Munnings the magazine chose: HRH The Prince of Wales on Forest Witch; the painting was sold in 1998 for $2.3 million.
Many of Munnings’ important works are to be found in Canada, as he was commissioned by Max Aitken to be war artist to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade in the First World War. One of his works was a portrait of General Jack Seely mounted on the famous war horse Warrior in 1918, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. “Munnings really had an extraordinary life and the First World War was a massive turning point,” Teatheredge explains. “His first wife, Florence, committed suicide just days before the outbreak of war and Munnings tried to join the Artists’ Rifles to fight but since he was blind in one eye he wasn’t accepted. Eventually he got out there in 1918, painting in the middle of a major German offensive and coming under fire. But the work he did made his name and he displayed 45 paintings at the Royal Academy war exhibition.”
Commissions flowed in after this, including one to paint Poethlyn, the winner of the first Grand National after the war. Another famous racehorse portrayed by Munnings was Brown Jack; his bronze statue of the horse is at Ascot Racecourse. “We are very excited here at the Munnings Museum because this season we will have his models of Brown Jack lined up together for the first time,” says Teatheredge. “This is part of a complete re-hang of his work, which we’ve done over the winter, including a special exhibition of his studies and sketchbooks showing how he built up his paintings.”
In the past decade tastes have swung back in favour of Munnings. In 2004, The Red Prince Mare made a record auction price of £4.384 million. We knew we were right to like him.
The Munnings Museum, Castle House, Castle Hill, Dedham, Suffolk opens its new hanging and exhibition on
1 April 2015.