September Afternoon, c1939, by Sir Alfred Munnings,© the estate of Sir Alfred Munnings, Dedham, Essex

More than just a grumpy anti-modernist? 

It’s time we appreciated the art of Sir Alfred Munnings

Artillery Row On Art

In the heart of Dedham Vale, that beautiful corner of East Anglia immortalised by John Constable,  resides the Munnings Museum. The director Jenny Hand is showing me around the home and studio, which belonged to the most underrated British painter of the twentieth century. “He is a great British artist,” she tells me. “Why don’t we celebrate that? He celebrates a lot of the values that British people hold dear today — the countryside and country life. He painted that, he recorded it for posterity, and he also lived it. He lived a country life.”

Who was this neglected artist? Did he live a life of poverty and obscurity? Not at all. He was knighted for his services to art, became President of the Royal Academy, and bought this handsome, historic house with the proceeds from his paintings. Yet since his death in 1959, Sir Alfred Munnings has fallen out of favour more sharply and steeply than any British artist of his age.

Why did it happen? Why was an artist so successful in his lifetime forgotten so swiftly? Are we right to forget about him? Or by overlooking him, and the art he made, are we revealing the prejudices of our own age?

Munnings was renowned for his equine paintings

As soon as you enter Castle House, where Munnings lived and worked for 40 years, it is clear you are in the presence of brilliance. The walls of his elegant Georgian home are adorned with his atmospheric paintings — scenes of English rural life in the first half of the last century, painted by a man who knew this milieu intimately, and portrayed it with immense skill and sympathy. His English pastorals aren’t sentimental. Rather, they’re warm-hearted and optimistic. “There’ll always be an England” is their unspoken refrain.

Throughout his long and lucrative career, Munnings was renowned for his equine paintings. Wandering around Castle House, it’s easy to see why: He lived among horses all his life. He bought them, rode them, bred them. He understood them better than any artist since Stubbs. “He was obsessed with horses,” says Jenny Hand. Yet above all he was a superb landscape painter, and it’s for his landscapes that he should be remembered. He was never happier than when he was painting en plein air, beside his beloved River Stour.

My Wife, My Horse and Myself, c1935, by Sir Alfred Munnings, © the estate of Sir Alfred Munnings, Dedham, Essex

Munnings’ equestrian paintings were snapped up by the landed gentry, but they were also enjoyed by folk who had never been near a horse. At a time when daily life was becoming increasingly urban and anonymous, people warmed to his bucolic depictions of country life: hunt meetings, point-to-points, messing about in boats… No wonder so many major galleries bought his work.

So why is he so little known today? The answer has a lot to do with the ideological bias of the art world. For most of Munnings’ life, the British art establishment treated modernism with intense suspicion, but since his death the pendulum has swung the other way. Today modernist artists of that era are lionised, while traditional artists like Munnings are ignored.

Naturalistic art between the wars has become a blind spot in British art history. Of course, the avant-garde artists of the 1920s and 1930s were significant and influential, but at the time most people far preferred the more conventional work of artists like Alfred Munnings. These were the sort of pictures most of us liked to hang above our mantelpieces. Yet visiting galleries like Tate Britain, you’d never guess this was the case.

Today, after all these years, the pendulum is starting to swing back again. Figuration is back in fashion, and figurative artists of Munnings’ generation (like his good friend Laura Knight) are finally receiving the recognition they deserve. In these troubled times, his reassuring paintings are just the tonic: a window on a lost world which still survives in Dedham Vale.

Munnings was born in 1878, in Mendham, Suffolk, the son of a miller (like Constable, and Rembrandt before him). It was an ideal beginning for a painter of rural life. He was closely connected with the agricultural world which would become his favoured subject. When he showed a flair for art, his father could afford to pay for his apprenticeship to a lithographer in Norwich. During the evenings he studied painting and drawing at Norwich School of Art.

These controversies made Munnings a bogeyman

It was a potent combination, which energised his art. His commercial training gave it clarity; his academic training gave it depth. In 1899 he had two pictures accepted for the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy (the first of several hundred). When he finished his apprenticeship, he turned down the offer of a steady job as a commercial artist to follow his vocation as a painter. Yet throughout his life, his approach to art remained businesslike — practical and pragmatic. He knew he had to make his own way in the world. He never forgot his connection with the paying public.

His nascent career was dealt a dreadful blow when he was only twenty. While lifting a dog over a hedge he was blinded in his right eye by a stray briar. This freakish accident might have curtailed the career of a less resolute man, but Munnings was undeterred. Remarkably, his subsequent paintings show no hint of this grievous handicap. If he was this good with one eye, we can only imagine how good he might have been with two.

During the Edwardian era, Munnings travelled around Britain and Ireland in search of subjects. His paintings of gypsies were particularly popular. “He understood what was going to be a sellable picture,” says Jenny Hand. Unable to enlist in the First World War, on account of his blind eye, he became a war artist, attached to the Canadian Cavalry. He travelled with them to the Western Front, and the powerful paintings he made there secured his reputation. From then on, he was never short of work.

Munnings’ first marriage ended tragically in 1914, when his first wife, Florence, committed suicide. In 1920 he remarried, and his second wife, Violet, an accomplished horsewoman, introduced him to the smart set, finding him an endless succession of wealthy buyers. This did wonders for his career, but at some cost to his reputation. These rich patrons wanted pictures of their houses, children, hounds and horses, leaving Munnings less time for his own work. 

“While it still has the open-air feel and the sunlight of his pre-war work, he’s now becoming more detailed,” says Jenny Hand. “His work becomes tighter. This is where he gets critically slammed for getting slick and samey. But of course, if one person has their portrait painted on a horse then their friends want one exactly the same. You get on a bit of a treadmill.” His commissioned work was competent, and highly profitable, but these society portraits pale beside the bewitching landscapes he painted for his own pleasure. Artistically, he became a victim of his own success.

What really damaged Munnings’ reputation was his rabid antipathy to modernism. Between the wars, his attitudes were in tune with many members of the public (and many members of the art establishment), but after he was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1944, the tide began to turn. In 1949 he gave a tipsy, ill-tempered speech at a Royal Academy banquet in which he dismissed modern art as “damned nonsense”. The BBC broadcast the speech and it became front page news.

A Barge on the Stour at Dedham, 1930s, by Sir Alfred Munnings, © the estate of Sir Alfred Munnings, Dedham, Essex

Worse was to follow. In 1950 he initiated a prosecution against Stanley Spencer (arguably the greatest British artist of his generation) for obscenity. In 1956 he painted a crude and clumsy satire on modernism, depicting several prominent connoisseurs of modern art, including the Director of the Tate Gallery, Sir John Rothenstein, admiring an abstract sculpture in a gallery adorned with paintings by Picasso (another Munnings bête noire). Its execution is stiff and stilted, a world away from his dreamlike landscapes. Exhibited at the RA’s Summer Exhibition, it caused a mighty kerfuffle. At the time, it seemed shocking. Now it merely seems like a sorry, shabby waste of time.

These controversies made Munnings a bogeyman, an enemy of progress. As modernism became the norm, eclipsing the naturalistic art of his own age, he became a figurehead for everything that was reactionary and old-fashioned. You could say he brought it on himself, but it still seems terribly unfair. Much of his commissioned work is fairly forgettable, but his landscapes are wonderful, painted with the freedom and imagination of the French Impressionists who inspired him. Look how he captures the play of light on moving water, the way the wind moves through the trees — these are the paintings of a great artist, and there’s a wealth of them here at Castle House.

“People have a very stereotypical view of Munnings as a grumpy old man who didn’t like modernism,” says Jenny Hand. But, as she says, there was much more to him than that. “Like all people, he is multi-faceted and complicated.” Now that the spats of his later years have receded into history, we can see him in the round. The poet John Masefield put it best, in the epitaph he wrote for the interment of Munnings’ ashes, in St Paul’s Cathedral. “O friend, how very lovely are the things, the English things, you helped us to perceive.”

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