Sir Alfred James Munnings: Genius of British Romantic Equestrian Art

Sir Alfred James Munnings: Genius of British Romantic Equestrian Art

2017 Kip Mistral. Featured image, The Clark Sisters, by Alfred Munnings. All images copyright estate of Sir Alfred Munnings, All rights reserved, DACS.)

Having recently discovered the prolific British Romantic art of Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959) which ironically focuses on the kind of sunlit and backlit Edwardian idyllic pastoral countryside equestrian activities that I wish I could enjoy myself, out of curiosity I began to look into his long and interesting life. As a young man Munnings roamed his native countryside painting gypsies, horse fairs and races and hunt scenes with riders and packs of hounds. He later served Britain as a WWI war artist and thereafter roved the world documenting the mostly equestrian lifestyles of aristocratic and wealthy patrons. Munnings was lionized on both sides of the Atlantic as the finest equestrian artist, his friends including Sir Winston Churchill and any number of the highest-ranking persons in society and industry of the time. Today his paintings sell in the $7-8M range. But this is a man who made his way to a knighthood by his passion for horses and the outdoors, and a whole lot of hard work.

Alfred Munnings Reading Aloud Outside on the Grass, c. 1911, by Harold Knight (Newlyn School).

Munnings was born a miller’s son in a time when the horse was still central to humankind’s existence. Straight out of school at 14 and apprenticed for six years to a lithographer, he clearly had real talent and balanced working the long 10-hour days designing and drawing advertising illustrations, with attending art school at night. Apprenticeship completed, Munnings became a full-time painter, though losing sight in one eye due to an accident forced him to spend six months with both eyes bandaged. Upon his recovery, the tenacious Munnings began paint prolifically with the result that he was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolor, and was invited to display two paintings at the very prestigious 1899 Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition. He was only 21.

A Suffolk Horse Fair, by Alfred Munnings.

Off Munnings went to the country to dig in and paint. He bought a small band of ponies, horses and a donkey to serve as models, rented rooms and a studio, and hired on a helper, a gypsy boy nicknamed “Shrimp”. Shrimp proved himself problematic as well as indispensable, since he was illiterate, drank too much and was “a cunning predator of farmers’ daughters” throughout two counties. Shrimp appears as a model in many of Munnings’ paintings of this era.

Shrimp Off to the Market, by Alfred James Munnings.

In the ever-looming shadow of World War I, Munnings found himself in Lamorna, Cornwall in the company of a group of young artists who comprised the “Newlyn School”. They spent their days painting in the extraordinary Cornwall light and their evening drinking and partying. One of these young artists was the troubled Florence Carter-Wood. She and and the fiery, handsome Munnings married in 1912, but apparently spent much of their time together in argument.

Alfred Munnings. Photograph from Norwich Castle Museum.

Munnings traveled for long periods of time, leaving Florence in the company of one of their mutual friends, the caretaker of a nearby estate, the gentlemanly Gilbert Evans. A friendship between Florence and Evans developed, but after Evans departed for colonial service in Nigeria, at this point Florence did succeed in taking her life. The 2003 movie Summer in February, starring Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) as Evans and Emily Browning as Florence, was based on a fictional book by the same name written by Jonathan Smith using several entries from Evan’s actual diary of the time as inspiration. (Summer in February is available on DVD at Netflix.)

Florence Carter-Wood, by Harold Knight

The Morning Ride. Portrait of Florence Carter-Wood by Alfred Munnings, c. 1912

Munnings liked and admired Evans, and left The Morning Ride painting in Cornwall with Harold and Laura Knight, to be given to Evans on his return from Nigeria after the war. Evans kept the painting always in a prominent place in his home. Munnings did not name Florence in his memoirs, or strangely, mention her ever again. And why, we wonder? Munnings’ relative Beth Munnings-Winter, who is also a talented artist in her own right, has studied his life and work deeply, and had some insights to share with me in an interview.

“Alfred was so distraught at the time of Florence’s suicide that his friends at the Newlyn School feared for him. He had a passionate nature, and was actually very soft-hearted and generous. It’s my understanding that Florence’s family wanted her married in the conviction that this would stabilize her already tenuous emotional state. She’d attempted suicide long before she met either Alfred or Gilbert, which points to an underlying cause having nothing to do with either of the two men. Alfred became her husband, but Florence herself apparently didn’t want a husband, and I believe it probable that she preferred her own sex. It’s most likely, therefore, that Florence found in Gilbert Evans a comfortable, non-threatening companion and they were very fond of each other, but nothing more. It seems highly unlikely that Alfred–who was a proud man–would have given the The Morning Ride painting of his late wife to a man who had cuckolded him. Also it seems improbable that Gilbert would have hung it in the family home over the years of his subsequent happy marriage, had Florence (the wife of one of his good friends) been his secret lover whom he had impregnated before her suicide, as the book and movie Summer in February suggested. Undoubtedly this would have been a case of keeping an enormous elephant in the room at all times, and hardly the setting for conjugal bliss between Mr. and Mrs Evans. Gilbert was by all accounts a man of honor, making the scenario still less likely.”

“Although on one hand the book and film brought increased public attention to Alfred and his artistic contribution, my feeling is that the creative script portrayed his character as being brutish and unfeeling, which is inaccurate, and a shame. I believe that Alfred refrained from mentioning Florence in his autobiography out of grief, rather than callousness. His second wife, Violet, dictated what would be included in Reginald Pound’s biography of Munnings, The Englishman, which explains why Florence is missing from that book. There remains a great deal of mystery surrounding Florence Munnings’ death, to this day. Her best friend at Lamorna and the last person to see her alive–a woman named Joan Coulsen–was never called to the inquest, nor is Joan mentioned in either the book Summer In February or the film based upon it. The allusions made therein provide a possible explanation for the events, but are by no means ‘a true story’ as billed. I think the truth of the mystery evades us, still.”

With WWI upon Europe, the army turned Munnings down because of his blind eye, but he found a way to contribute to the war effort with a civilian job processing tens of thousands of Canadian horses en route to France (and usually death). Nearly 500,000 British horses alone died in WWI. Knowing this must have been painful to Munnings, as he loved horses and had great compassion for animals. Probably not soon enough for him, Munnings was assigned to the position of war artist to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade under the command of British General “Jack” Seely (owner and rider of the war horse “Warrior” on whose life story the play and movie “War Horse” was based). NOTE: this true story will be another blog one day soon!

Lord Strathcona’s Horse on the March, by Alfred Munnings, c. 1918.

Munnings’ drawings and paintings of the war captured many details and first-hand experiences during a time when war correspondents didn’t use photographs extensively, public radio was still limited and television did not yet exist. He depicted no carnage in his work.

In 1918 when Munnings returned to London, the way was clear for his career. Two crafty Scottish art dealers bought up most of his pre-war paintings, making him financially secure and allowing him to purchase Castle House in Dedham, Suffolk, in 1919, where he lived the rest of his life. Munnings’ 1919 London exhibition of 45 paintings of the Canadian army in France was a great success, and thereafter his name was on everyone’s lips.

In 1920, he married Violet McBride, a young widow, the daughter of a society riding instructor and herself a top show ring rider. Theirs seems to have been an equitable marriage with plenty of time apart, while she was off hunting foxes and he was painting and traveling.

And the luminous portraits for which he became so famous and in demand for commissions began to roll off his brushes.

The Red Prince Mare, by Alfred Munnings.

Portrait of Lady Munnings, by Alfred Munnings.

Two Lady Riders in the Evening Sky, by Alfred Munnings.

Beryl Riley Smith, by Alfred Munnings

Edith Kate Baker, by Alfred Munnings

Huntsman, by Alfred Munnings

Sydney Webster Fish, by Alfred Munnings

In 1944, Munnings was elected president of the Royal Academy of Art, and awarded a knighthood in the same year. He died at his home Castle House in Dedham in 1959.

Sir Alfred Munnings Seated, Maurice Frederick Codner (1888-1958) (Courtesy of The Munnings Art Museum)

The effortless grace shown in the magnificent horses and riders in Munnings’ paintings is certainly a testament to the style of British country riding of years past, but it has clearly not lost its appeal. In addition to the immensely valuable pieces in private collections–including Great Britain’s royal family–today much of the Alfred Munnings’ huge portfolio resides in The Munnings Art Museum installed in Castle House itself, with 657 original artworks for the public to enjoy.

For more information see  https://www.munningsmuseum.org.uk

Reminiscing of the fading elegant British country lifestyle at that time, Ivor Novello and Edward Moore wrote a song most recently featured in the movie and soundtrack of Gosford Park, “The Land of Might-Have-Been,” performed by Jeremy Northam playing Novello (piano played by his brother Christopher Northam). Video here: https://vimeo.com/196170857

The Land of Might-Have-Been (1924)

Somewhere there’s another land
Different from this world below
Far more mercifully planned
Than the cruel place we know
Innocence and peace are there
All is good that is desired
Faces there are always fair
Love grows never old nor tired

We shall never find that lovely
Land of might-have-been
I can never be your king nor
You can be my queen
Days may pass and years may pass
And seas may lie between
We shall never find that lovely
Land of might-have-been

Sometimes on the rarest nights
Comes the vision calm and clear
Gleaming with unearthly lights
On our path of doubt and fear
Winds from that far land are blown
Whispering with secret breath
Hope that plays a tune alone
Love that conquers pain and death

Shall we ever find that lovely
Land of might-have-been?
Will I ever be your king or you
At last my queen?
Days may pass and years may pass
And seas may lie between
Shall we ever find that lovely
Land of might-have-been?

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