MUNNINGS, Sir Alfred James

1878 - 1959

Sir Alfred Munnings

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. Great teams of shires brought corn to his father’s mill and he learned the feel and scent of horses from an early age. At the age of four his favourite toy was a wooden horse called Merrylegs, which his father taught him to draw and he went to a dame's boarding-school for a few months afterwards 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. He was always drawing horses, from memory or from his imagination, and 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. 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. After weeks in a nursing home with both eyes bandaged he began a long struggle to overcome his lack of binocular vision which was a permanent handicap. 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 brilliant young horsewoman and painter, ten years his junior who came from a wealthy family and despite opposition from her parents they married on 19 January 1912, she attempted suicide on their honeymoon and she 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, Whitney-Smith, had been a small statuette of his mare Augereau. His sculpting ability was recognized in 1919 when his friend Sir Edwin Lutyens, who considered that his horse paintings showed a sculptor's grasp of essential form, 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. Seven years his junior, giving her power of attorney, she took over all their domestic and financial affairs, leaving him free to paint. Severe gout made Munnings increasingly irritable and he had frequent mood swings. He gradually abandoned painting in watercolour because he felt its immediacy interrupted his work on large oils such as ‘The Ascot Procession Crossing Windsor Park', painted at the invitation of Queen Mary and bought for the Royal Collection. The Jockey Club at Newmarket loaned him an old horse-box on the course to use as a studio, and it was in this that he painted some of his best racing pictures and he purchased the old grammar school school-room at Dedham and converted it into a large studio. During the Second World War Munnings retired to his cottage on Exmoor, where, despite gout in his right wrist, he painted landscapes, Dartmoor ponies, and hunting scenes. He reluctantly agreed to stand as president of the Royal Academy in succession to Sir Edwin Lutyens, who had defeated him for office in 1938. 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, he ignored protocol at council meetings and hosted splendid dinners at the academy and at one of these he made Sir Winston Churchill the first Royal Academician extraordinary. At Churchill's suggestion, in 1949 he revived the academy's men-only annual banquet after a lapse of ten years. His uninhibited sixteen minute after-dinner speech made academy history when he berated the academy, the Arts Council, the Tate Gallery, and Anthony Blunt (surveyor of the king's pictures), and ranted against modern art, including ‘those foolish daubers’ Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso, whose influence, he said, had defiled British tradition. Despite its public appeal, the after-dinner speech ostracised Munnings from the art world and he resigned the presidency of the academy at the end of the year. 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