Sporting artist Alfred Munnings loved horses, the English countryside and a good stiff drink. What he didn’t like was modern art.
“Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, Your Graces, My Lords and Gentlemen, pray silence for the President of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Alfred Munnings.” When Sir Alfred rose to address Britain’s most influential arbiters of art that evening in 1949, he had reached the pinnacle of an amazing career, having risen from obscure provincial artist to general acceptance as one of the leading painters of his generation—and by far its most rambunctious.
He had become wealthy and famous, lionized on both sides of the Atlantic by Rothschilds and Astors and members of the royal family. His friends included Sir Winston Churchill, poet laureate John Masefield, high-ranking military, racehorse owners, trainers, masters of foxhounds and “staunch farmers of the right breed,” as he put it.
His legacy endures. His early paintings of gypsy encampments, wild ponies and county fairs in long ago East Anglia are enjoying brisk sales, as are his later equestrian portraits and scenes of Thoroughbred racing at Newmarket, Epsom and the like. Even though sporting art has often been treated with condescension by the art establishment, his works fetch prices in the millions, right up there with those of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and David Hockney. “There has been an incredible flowering of his followers as well as his prices,” says Peter L. Villa, a Manhattan art dealer and former Christie’s executive. “He has always been the leading light of English sporting art, a painter of great flair with a tremendous sense of the subject he was painting.”
But Munnings’ life was not all strawberries and clotted cream. Born the second of four sons to a miller in 1878, he lost the sight of his right eye just before his 21st birthday; from about age 30, gout had him in its grip, and his first wife tried to commit suicide on their honeymoon only to succeed two years later in 1914.
And in his autobiography, Munnings recounts the “chill” he felt when it dawned on him that “much that was beautiful in England was slipping away,” a transition he lovingly documented. “He was completely besotted with the countryside of England and hated to see it change,” says Munnings expert Lorian Peralta-Ramos. “It was heart-wrenching for him to see the horse replaced by the machine.”
Of a piece with his distress over the loss of Arcadia was his obsessive hatred of modern art—with the exception of Impressionism, which he embraced in many of his paintings. He thoroughly enjoyed taking potshots at contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and he felt that few modern artists had paid their dues or even learned to draw.
“What are pictures for?” he asked. “To fill a man’s soul with admiration and sheer joy, not to bewilder and daze him.”
Munnings’ life began in relatively humble circumstances, in the sleepy rural country along the Suffolk-Norfolk border, 75 miles northeast of London. At that time the horse was still central to humankind’s existence. The animal had been celebrated in the brilliant equestrian paintings and lithographs of George Stubbs (1724-1806), whose work paved the way for Munnings. So too did the encouragement of his parents, who presented the boy with a toy horse at age 4. The artist would long remember its black mane and bobbing head, as he would his first pony—and every other horse he ever owned. In An Artist’s Life, the first volume of Munnings’ three-part memoir, he recalls a carriage ride with his father who shared his love of high-spirited horses: “It was then the grey mare. I can see her now as plainly as one of my own today. A fair-sized, well-bred mare, all quality and with a temperament. I can see those pricked-up ears in front of us and the short, silky, silver mane in the breeze. I hear her hooves on the road, the jingle of the silver-mounted harness and the sound of the wheels as we bowled along.”
With his three brothers, young Alfred spent his days roaming the meadows and playing along the Waveney River. But this idyllic childhood came abruptly to an end at age 14, when his father bound him to a six-year apprenticeship to Page Brothers & Co., Ltd., lithographers in Norwich, 20 miles from the Munnings home in Mendham. After each ten-hour workday, Alfred would walk to the Norwich School of Art to study until 9 p.m. For a restless, energetic young man it was a grinding, often boring regimen, softened only by the occasional bottle of cheap wine and the volume of Tennyson he kept beneath his desk.
Still, Munnings thrived under the pressure of turning out imaginative advertising illustrations on short notice for such accounts as Colman’s Mustard, Waverley Cycles, and A. J. Caley & Son chocolate and cracker manufacturers. His work for Caley brought in so much business that John Shaw Tomkins, a company director, took Munnings under his wing.
In 1899, the 20-year-old artist was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, and the Royal Academy of Arts accepted two of his paintings for display. In one, Stranded, a little girl in a blue pinafore and a boy struggle to free their rowboat from reeds along a riverbank. In the other, Pike-fishing in January, a lone angler stands by a stream, his collar turned up.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Royal Academy of Arts, the prestigious society established by King George III in 1768 to compete with the French salon. Sir Joshua Reynolds was appointed first president, with membership then restricted to 40 academicians and 20 associates. Munnings celebrated his academy acceptance by going into his beloved English countryside with a friend for a hunt race meeting. “I saw the thoroughbred horses and jockeys in bright silk colours going off down the course,” he later wrote. “The peaceful School of Art, the smelly artists’ room at Page Brothers faded away, and I began to live!”
Not much later, his apprenticeship over, Munnings began the perilous business of making a living as an artist. It was around this time that he suffered a disaster: while lifting a puppy over a thorn barrier, a branch rebounded and a thorn pierced his right eye, blinding it. He spent six months in a Norwich nursing home with both eyes bandaged and his savings evaporating. When the bandages at last came off, he had trouble with depth perception and gauging distances, problems that would bother him the rest of his life.
To ease his way back into solvency, Munnings’ mentor and first patron, Tomkins, gave him commercial assignments. Munnings also unapologetically sought solace in the bottle. He describes, with genuine affection, a particularly lethal punch made from an 18th-century recipe consisting of rum, brandy, sherry, lemons, sugar and cloves, which was “never known to fail in making a night.”
In 1904 he moved to Swainsthorpe, five miles south of Norwich, where he rented rooms and a studio in a farmhouse. There he assembled a band of ponies, horses and a donkey to serve as models. He bought a blue caravan with a stovepipe peeking out of the roof and a flatbed cart to carry a tent, a big umbrella, an easel, oil paints, canvases, turpentine, brushes, piles of paint rags, as well as watercolor materials.
He acquired the most picturesque of his human models—a youth nicknamed Shrimp. This young gypsy, “a wild, uncivilized primitive,” also helped with the animals and baggage, but caused Munnings many a headache. Shrimp could neither read nor write; he drank too much; fell into minor scrapes with the law; and proved a cunning predator of farmers’ daughters along the fields and down the tranquil lanes of Norfolk and Suffolk. But Shrimp was also indispensable. Munnings had him fit out with corduroy trousers, and a black waistcoat, yellow kerchief and soft cap. Thus caparisoned, he appears in many early Munnings works, including one in which Shrimp whips a thundering herd of ponies up and over a stream bank; Coming Through the Gap, as it is called, brought $2,274,000 at a Christie’s auction of 21 works in June 2002 that brought more than $8.5 million.
The years from about 1900 to 1914, encompassing the Edwardian era, were among the artist’s most creative. He produced wonderfully atmospheric pictures of farmers and villagers gossiping and otherwise enjoying themselves at horse fairs and country race meetings. These were his people; the Munnings clan had been living in these parts, close to the soil, since the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
In the summer of 1910, Munnings fell in love with Cornwall, in southwest England, with its stone-walled dairy farms, spectacular cliffs, pounding surf and cry of sea gulls. Late one December afternoon at a spot along the coast, the artist was out with the hunt when a fox eluded the hounds and bounded down a cliff. When the riders dismounted and peered below, they saw the fox crouching on a boulder at the edge of the booming surf. Munnings and the whipper-in (identified only as “Jack”) made their way down the cliff. Jack cracked his whip at the fox, which plunged into the water with a terrified yelp and was immediately fighting for its life.
In his memoirs, Munnings recalls that the current repeatedly carried the rapidly tiring fox just short of the rocks, only to drag him back to sea. At what must have been the fox’s last chance, a huge wave lifted him ashore. He shook himself, scrambled up the cliff and disappeared into a crevice. Jack started after him, but Munnings stopped him. The professional hunt staff was furious, but members of the hunt field cheered. Munnings’ rendering of the episode, Gone to Cliff, fetched $2,426,000 at auction in June 2001.
Sir Alfred’s last days in Cornwall were spent in the looming shadow of World War I. Munnings found some of the young artists there less interested in painting than partying, which they did Roman-style, sipping wine and nibbling grapes on floor cushions. The army turned Munnings down because of his blind eye, but he was able to wangle a civilian job outside of Reading in 1917, processing tens of thousands of Canadian horses en route to France—and often death. Nearly 500,000 British horses alone perished in World War I. After about a year, Munnings became an official war artist attached to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade under the command of British general J.E.B. “Jack” Seely.
On a bitter cold January morning in 1918, in a shell-blasted landscape on the Western Front, a few thousand yards from the German lines, Munnings painted a portrait of General Seely and Warrior, his charger. Later, when General Seely’s unit was forced into a galloping retreat, the artist discovered what it was like to come under shellfire.
When he returned to his old life in London in the summer of 1918, it was like Murphy’s Law turned on its head: everything that could go right professionally for the 40-year-old artist did go right. A pair of canny Scottish art dealers bought up most of his prewar paintings, helping to make him financially secure. He leased his first apartment and studio in London and in 1919, bought Castle House in Dedham, Suffolk, in the “Constable country” along the Suffolk-Essex border, famed for its big sky and gnarled oaks and so-called in tribute to the great landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837), whom Munnings hugely admired. His 1919 London exhibition of 45 paintings of the Canadians in France was a smashing success, and he was in even greater demand after Princess Alice commissioned him to paint her husband, the Earl of Athlone. Munnings posed him in uniform, aboard his horse against a faux battlefield on the grounds of Windsor Castle.
In 1920, Munnings married Violet McBride, a young widow and a top show ring rider, the daughter of a society riding instructor. Her social connections were doubtless helpful. She had a shrewd head for business and handled their finances skillfully. The Munnings were often apart for long stretches while he traveled and she hunted foxes.
At Munnings’ favorite racetrack, historic Newmarket, he produced a series of paintings showing horses plunging, rearing and milling about at the start in what Edgar Degas reportedly once called a state of “naked tension.”
He painted paddock scenes before the races and winner’s circle scenes after, but in only a few instances did he portray the race itself. He loved horse racing—but lamented any exploitation of the animals. He went on shooting parties—but never carried a gun. His war paintings omitted any carnage.
From the 1920s until his death in 1959, Munnings could count upon a steady stream of rich commissions. From time to time, though, he threatened to quit work-for-hire and concentrate upon subjects of his own choosing, especially country life and landscapes. But his wife kept his hand to the easel, reminding him of their overhead which, at one point, included taking care of more than 30 horses, a country hunting cottage, their London properties, his London clubs and other manifestations of the good life.
Munnings was sometimes gone for months at a time living among the wealthiest people in the world. That life had its benefits. Munnings writes of sketching a mare and foal in an elm-shaded paddock at Anthony de Rothschild’s Southcourt Stud near Leighton Buzzard in the early 1920s. In those days a groom appeared daily at teatime with a silver service, placing it on the grass beside the artist with a word of encouragement. “There, sir, that should help you to keep going.”
But Munnings also found that life in the rarefied air among patrons could be lonely. “You are a guest but you are really not their friend,” observes Peralta-Ramos. “You are a servant but you are not a servant. It’s a very awkward situation.” To his credit, Munnings did not try to soften his Suffolk accent or change his salty language or his raffish style of dress. He was who he was. But he became more opinionated as the years rolled by, which also aggravated his obsessions about Picasso and what one critic called the Spaniard’s “queer distortions.”
“If he didn’t agree with you, he’d let you know it and was not going to smile politely and let you get away with a silly comment,” says Peralta-Ramos. He attracted fierce supporters and equally avid detractors.
“As those artists whom he criticized became more popular, it was the critic, not the artists, who suffered,” says Duncan Robinson of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. “He lost some battles. But he was a fighter, old Munnings.”
In 1932, philanthropist Paul Mellon asked Munnings to paint him astride his favorite hunter, Dublin, in Gloucestershire. In his Reflections in a Silver Spoon, Mellon recalls getting a photograph of the painting before the real thing arrived. “I thought the bushy willow tree to the left was a little disturbing and wrote to Munnings, asking whether he could do something to make it slightly less prominent,” Mellon recalled. “Sometime later, I got a blast back saying in the first place, the tree wasn’t a willow, it was a pollarded oak, and second, he had no intention of changing anything whatsoever. So that was that.”
Neither man could have imagined that Mellon, then 25, would one day become one of the greatest supporters of sporting art and the biggest collector of Munnings’ work.
From those in love with horses, Sir Alfred’s work often elicits strong emotions. After World War I, for example, he visited General Seely (by then, Lord Mottistone) at his farm on the Isle of Wight and again sketched the general’s war horse. In My Horse, Warrior, below the sketch, the general wrote: “Here is Warrior’s head as drawn by my friend Munnings. The likeness is so striking, the expression so true, that I confess it moves me deeply. It is Warrior that I see, the real Warrior with his white star and his fearless eye.”
After lunching one day at Chartwell with Winston Churchill, Munnings encouraged the artistic efforts of England’s most famous amateur and saw to it that the Royal Academy elected him a “member in extraordinary.” Sir Winston, in turn, encouraged Sir Alfred to resume the academy’s annual banquets at Burlington House, which had been suspended since the war. Though Munnings wanted to quit the presidency—he found it irksome and time-consuming—he agreed to stay on through 1949 and to hold a farewell banquet. Both men were determined that Munnings’ swan song would not be a stuffy affair.
BBC Radio would cover the event. Munnings borrowed the toastmaster from the office of the Lord Mayor of London, and signed up the Royal Artillery band to play “The Boys of the Old Brigade.” The distinguished white tie assemblage included Viscount Montgomery of Alamein; the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the King’s pictures, later to be convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. Munnings despised Blunt, for he had once heard him say that Picasso was a greater painter than Sir Joshua Reynolds.
By the time it was Munnings’ turn to speak, he had apparently consumed a great deal of sherry, followed by several toasts with champagne. Soon he was having trouble getting past words like”“innumerable,” but his message was clear and heartfelt. “I find myself a president of a body of men who are what I call shilly-shallying. They feel there is something in this so-called modern art….Well, I myself would rather have—excuse me, my Lord Archbishop—a damned bad failure, a bad, muddy old picture where somebody has tried…to set down what they have seen than all this affected juggling….Not so long ago I spoke in this room to the students, and….I said to those students, ‘if you paint a tree, for God’s sake try and make it look like a tree, and if you paint a sky, try and make it look like a sky….'”
He might as well have rolled a grenade down the banquet table. There were shouts of “hear, hear,” angry interruptions and outbursts of laughter. Munnings bristled: “As I am president and have the right of the chair, allow me to speak. I shall not be here next year, thank God!”
The next morning, phone calls and cables poured into the academy and the BBC, followed by hundreds of letters, the great majority of which, Munnings insisted, supported him. Cartoonists had fun with the war of brush and palette. David Low, of the Evening Standard, depicted Munnings leading a cavalry charge up the steps of the Tate Gallery. The caption read: “General Munnings’s lowbrow cavalry charges the Tate Gallery. Picasso taken prisoner! Matisse severely wounded!”
“Munnings stood for everything that was reactionary in that speech when, in fact, he wasn’t as reactionary as perhaps he thought he was,” says Malcolm Cormack, the former Paul Mellon Curator of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. “He owed a great deal to Impressionism. You can’t think of Munnings without seeing those wonderful impressionist landscapes that he did.”
Toward the end of his life, Sir Alfred’s left eye was beginning to fail him along with his general health. He died in his sleep in the early hours of July 17, 1959. He was 80. His ashes were placed in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral beside those of John Constable. Poet John Masefield’s inscription on Sir Alfred’s memorial plaque reads:
O friend, how lovely are the things,
the English things, you help us to perceive.
Chew, Peter. “The Painter Who Hated Picasso,” Smithsonian. October 2006.