To be a great painter you musn't be pious but rather a little wicked and entirely a man of the world.
Alfred Munnings was born of old East Anglian farming stock on the 8th October 1878, the second son of John Munnings, Miller of Mendham, Suffolk. He revealed artistic talents at a very early age, even before his school days at Redenhall Grammar School and Framlingham College, and readers of his autobiography will recall the drawings of indians, trappers and scalp-hunters, Knights templars, and "My Mother's pony, Fanny', done at the age of nine.
Leaving Framlingham at the age of fourteen and a half Alfred Munnings was apprenticed to the firm of Page Brothers, lithographers of Norwich as a poster artist from which period date the designs of "lovely girls in large hats" for Caley's Chocolates. Many examples of his posters are to be seen in the Studio at Castle House.
After working from nine in the morning to seven at night he attended the Norwich School of art for a further two hours each evening. During his six years of apprenticeship he came to the attention of John Shaw Tomkins, a director of Caley's Chocolates, who was his earliest patron and who greatly encouraged him and subsequently took him on a visit to the Continent. One of Munnings earliest commissions was of John Shaw Tomkins' father posing on a garden seat with his collie dog, and the picture "Daniel Tomkins and his Dog" has been acquired for the Museum.
In 1898 whilst still an apprentice at Pages, Munnings had his painting, the delightful picture 'Stranded' accepted and hung by the Royal Academy. The original painting is in the Bristol Art gallery and a print can be seen at Castle House. This was to be the first of his 230 pictures hung in the Royal Academy up to 1949.
At the end of his apprenticeship he returned to Mendham where he had his first studio, a converted carpenter's shop, and painted "horses, village characters, hunting themes and landscapes". Apart from a period of study and painting at Julin's Atelier in Paris, a number of works from which period are at Castle House, he stayed and worked in Norfolk until 1911 when he went to Cornwall, attracted by the famous Newlyn School. Having established himself with stables and studios at Lamorna, it was there that he became friendly with Harold and Laura Knight, Dame Laura subsequently becoming a regular visitor to Castle House.
It was from Lamorna that he made his excursions to Hampshire where he had discovered, in the gypsy hop pickers, a wealth of painting material. Such notable examples as 'Departure of the Hop Pickers' (National Art Gallery, Melbourne) and 'Gypsy Life' (Aberdeen Art Gallery) did much to establish his name and fortune.
His extraordinary vitality, his joy in his work, none of us could forget him. He was a fighter. He fought the wind that shivered his easel and canvas. He fought the heat and cold. He fought the shifting sun and the changing shadows.
Dame Laura Knight
Munnings lost the sight of his right eye in an accident when he was twenty (a blow from a briar when lifting a dog over a hedge) and, rejected on two occasions by the Army because of his sight, he spent the first three years of the 1914-18 war mainly in Lamorna. In 1917, with the help of a friend, he got a lowly job caring for remounts at Calcot Park near Reading and on his departure from Lamorna, Laura Knight said of him "His extraordinary vitality, his joy in his work, none of us could forget him. He was a fighter. He fought the wind that shivered his easel and canvas. He fought the heat and cold. He fought the shifting sun and the changing shadows". Her remarks underline his amazing achievements in overcoming the handicap of being blind in one eye. Visitors to Castle House will see evidence of the enormous and versatile output which was to continue to the end of his life.
Early in 1918 he was sent to France as an official war artist attached to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and later some forty-five of his canvasses were exhibited at the Canadian War Records Exhibition at the Royal Academy. Without doubt his most important painting was that of 'General J. E. B. Seely (later Lord Mottistone) on his charger Warrior' (National Gàllery, Ottawa), which led to his commission to paint the Earl of Athlone, brother of Queen Mary. These paintings demonstrated his ability to paint not just horse but rider on it and assured him of a flow of commissions which brought him money and fame. He was elected an A.R.A. in 1919.
In March 1920 Alfred Munnings married Mrs. Violet McBride, a young widow who was a horse-woman of no mean renown, having won the Gold Cup at Olympia and many other prizes. She was a great help to Munnings in his career, attending to all his business matters and always promoting his interests, but she said that "He was never such a good artist after he married me. He had establishments to keep up and more expenses to meet. It meant painting for money". Certainly one gets the impression from his letters and from his autobiography that during the twenty years to 1940 when he travelled extensively both abroad and in the United Kingdom on painting commissions, he was always homesick for Dedham and the freedom to paint landscapes. His other great love was the racing scene, not so much the racehorse commissions as the informal studies of horses and in particular his studies of the start at Newmarket. His ability to capture movement is unsurpassed.
Munnings was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1944 and was knighted in the same year. He did not really enjoy his Presidency, disliking intensely and finding burdensome the administrative and formal demands of the position. He did not hide his feelings about many aspects of modern art, nor is he mince his words. His farewell speech at the 1949 Royal Academy Banquet, which was broadcast and received wide publicity, echoed the unspoken feelings of picture lovers at large that paintings is a representative art.
The controversy surrounding him may well have diverted attention from his sheer merit as artist although this merit has been increasingly recognised in the art market with record prices being achieved in this country and the U.S.A for a 20th century British artist. His attitude to modern art, however well or badly expressed, was founded on his belief that much of it was a confidence trick on the public and not based on what he considered to be essential virtues of craftmanship and hard work and his simply expressed view - "What are pictures for? To fill a man's soul with admiration and sheer joy, not to bewilder and daze him".
It could be said of his work that his training in lithography helped Munnings to develop his fluency and few artists have painted with greater speed and certainty. And yet the large number of studies and sketches he made bear witness to the thoroughness with which he tackled a subject.
Alfred Munnings's world-wide fame is based on his painting of racehorses, yet before 1919, when he was elected an ARA, he had never painted a thoroughbred and it is arguable that his best work was produced in the period 1898 to 1914 with his recording of the English and particularly the East Anglian rural scene in all its aspects of skies, landscapes, animal and human character portrayal. Referring to his early efforts Munnings said "There is no sophistry about them. They were done in my twenties, before I had learned the wiles and tricks which artists are supposed to know".
In her book 'Sporting Art' Stella A. Walker neatly summarises Munnings's place in art - "Criticism of the artist's talent as facile and slight has not been lacking, but his splendid studies of rough cobs and gipsy lads, the superlative expertise of 'The Return from Ascot' with the Windsor greys, his studies of heavyweight-carriers and robust foxhunters and racing two-year-olds, were to bring to equestrian art of the 20th century a brilliance of achievement not seen since the epoch of George Stubbs".
Apart from his great versatility as a painter, his ability as a sculptor as witnessed by the bronze 'Brown Jack' commissioned for the Jockey Club, a casting of which is at Castle House, was of high order and he rounded off a full and exciting life by a remarkable autobiography running to three volumes of reminiscence and comments on the English scene over seventy years.
Few artists have achieved fame and fortune in their own lifetime and fewer still have made the Nation the beneficiary of their life's work.