MUNNINGS, Sir Alfred

1878 - 1959

Sir Alfred Munnings

Alfred James Munnings, was born at Mill House Mendham, Suffolk on 8 October 1878, second of the four sons of John Munnings (1839–1914), a miller & merchant, and his wife Emily, née Ringer (1850–1945), one of nine children of a local farmer. His mother suffered frequent bouts of melancholia, a tendency which Munnings inherited together with her love of music, poetry, and nature. At the age of four his favourite toy was a wooden horse called 'Merrylegs', which his father taught him to draw and, with the teams of shires bringing corn to his father’s mill, he learned the feel and scent of horses from an early age. He demonstrated a remarkable talent which led his parents to send him to the local vicar's daughter for drawing lessons from the age of eight, going to a dame's boarding-school for a few months after which he had a governess for three years until he went to the village school and then to Redenhall Commercial School, followed by four unhappy terms at Framlingham College, Suffolk. Aged 14, Munnings was apprenticed for six years to Page Brothers, the Norwich printers and lithographers, and for nine hours a day he created imaginative posters and advertisements. In the evenings he studied for two hours at the Norwich School of Art where his favourite model was the cast of a horse's head from the Parthenon. Early mentors were his headmaster, Walter Scott, who encouraged him to pursue art; James Reeve, curator of the Norwich Museum, who bought one of his early pictures for £85; and Shaw Tomkins, manager of Caley's chocolate factory and one of Page Brothers' most important customers, who commissioned him to design posters and boxes also commissioned a portrait of his father, Daniel Tomkins. Alongside his escalating commercial work for many firms Munnings painted intensively and in ten years sold through the Norwich Art Circle some 110 pictures for up to £100 each. In 1899 two of his small paintings, 'Stranded' and 'Pike-Fishing in January', were accepted for the the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition also showing a landscape at the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. Some months later his career was interrupted when he was blinded in his right eye after it was accidentally pierced by a thorn and began a long struggle to overcome his lack of binocular vision. East Anglia remained his favourite place to paint then Munnings joined the group of painters at Newlyn in Cornwall and became the focus of a social group including Dame Laura Knight (1871-1970), her husband Harold Knight (1874-1961), Samuel John 'Lamorna' Birch (1869-1955(, and Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947). There he met Florence Carter Wood (1888–1914), a young horsewoman and painter, ten years his junior and who came from a wealthy family, despite opposition from her parents they married on 19 January 1912, but she attempted suicide on their honeymoon and succeeded two and a half years later. In 1918 elected an associate of the Royal Academy and felt financially secure when James Connell & Sons of Old Bond Street bought his three academy pictures and all his Cornish gypsy and horse paintings at his own price. Munnings's first attempt at sculpture, for which he had received no formal training, made at the instigation of a young sculptor friend, Edwin Whitney-Smith (1889-1952), had been a small statuette of his mare 'Augereau' and his sculpting ability was recognized in 1919 when his friend Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), invited him to sculpt a bronze statuette of a young cavalry officer on horseback, Edward Horner, who was killed in the war. A member and exhibitor at the Ipswich Art Club 1899-1915 and at their centenary exhibition in 1974 two of his oils 'Study for Crossing the Ford' and 'Travellers' were shown. In 1919 Munnings bought Castle House, Dedham, Essex, a year later he married a young divorcee, Violet McBride (1885-1971), daughter of a London riding master, Frank Golby Haines, who was seven years his junior and, giving her power of attorney, she took over all their domestic and financial affairs which left him free to paint. He gradually abandoned painting in watercolour, working on large oils such as ‘The Ascot Procession Crossing Windsor Park', painted at the invitation of Queen Mary and purchased for the Royal Collection. The Jockey Club at Newmarket loaned him an old horse-box on the course to use as a studio, where he painted some of his best racing pictures, and purchasing the old grammar school-room at Dedham, he converted it into a large studio. During the Second World War Munnings retired to his cottage on Exmoor, despite suffering from gout in his right wrist, he painted landscapes, Dartmoor ponies and hunting scenes. He stood as president of the Royal Academy in succession to Sir Edwin Lutyens and on 14 March 1944 he beat Augustus John by twenty-four votes to seventeen and in June received a knighthood in the king's birthday honours. Munnings was the Royal Academy's most controversial president, ignoring protocol at council meetings and hosted splendid dinners at the academy and he resigned the presidency. Munnings died in his sleep at Castle House on 17 July 1959, he had no issue. After a private cremation at Colchester, Essex, his ashes were interred in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, London, where his memorial plaque was placed next to that of John Constable. His estate and possessions were left to his wife and in fulfilment of his wish that his estate and the paintings in his possession should be left to the nation, his widow worked to establish an art museum at their Dedham home where a large collection of his work is hung - now the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum.




Works by This Artist