Reviving Alfred Munnings

Published July 15, 2013

Wall Street Journal

National Sporting Museum And Library

Through Sept. 15

Middleburg, Va.


After the Sole Chablis, roast duckling, petits fours, wines and coffee, the septuagenarian rose to speak. His distinguished audience at London’s Royal Academy of Arts that evening in 1949 included his friend Winston Churchill as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chief Justice.

To those who knew Alfred James Munnings, the subject of his farewell address as the Academy’s president came as no surprise; he was always vehement on the subject. But tonight, in addition to those at the Academy, he was speaking to millions over BBC radio.

As usual, Munnings got right to the point, mounting a full-throated attack on modern art. He loathed modernism because it repudiated what he most cherished in art: tradition, order, stability, verisimilitude and beauty. In his address that night he accused his fellow Academicians of “shilly-shallying” in their response to it instead of, as committed traditionalists, defending established artistic values. They “feel that there is something in this so-called modern art . . . all this affected juggling, this following of well . . . shall we call it the School of Paris?”

In a famous aside, Munnings then claimed that Churchill was of like mind. “He is beside me because once he said to me, ‘Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join with me in kicking his something-something-something . . . ?’ I said, “Yes sir, I would.”

But no endorsement could save Munnings that night. With his attack on Picasso, Matisse and their ilk, he erased himself from the pages of art history, going from the pinnacle of the British art establishment to a cultural nonenity virtually overnight.

Nonetheless, the seven-figure prices of his paintings have always belied his critics’ scorn, and since the 1980s he’s been honored with a series of retrospective exhibitions. The latest, “Munnings: Out in the Open,” at the National Sporting Library & Museum, brings together nearly 70 oils and watercolors to focus on his plein-air painting, most from private collections and several from the Munnings Museum in Dedham, England. Though primarily known as an equestrian painter, this show explores a broader section of his work, including, besides horse paintings, landscapes, images of livestock and scenes of gypsy life. A first-rate, fully illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition.

Born in 1878, the son of a successful miller, Munnings grew up in rural Suffolk. Although he often lived and worked in London, he remained a country boy at heart. He had a deep, unending love of nature and its creatures, evident in the exhibition’s landscapes and affectionate depictions of horses, dogs, cows, and even appealing pigs, as seen in the amusing “Pigs at Great Thurlow, Suffolk” (1936), a picture of porcine bliss.

As a child Munnings was fascinated by drawing and received some elementary lessons from a local vicar’s daughter. But his first serious introduction to art came when he was apprenticed at the age of 14 to Page Brothers lithographers, where he worked for six years making advertisements and posters. Like Howard Pyle and Norman Rockwell, Munnings’s experience as a commercial artist taught him how to skillfully and concisely tell a story with line and color, characteristics that would form an enduring feature of his art.

In 1899, the year his first painting was accepted in a Royal Academy exhibition, the 20-year old artist was blinded in the right eye by a thorny branch while rescuing a puppy. Yet the skillful perspective of his work shows no trace of his monocular vision, nor visible anywhere is the crippling effect of gout in his hands, which tormented him, especially later in life.

In 1912 he married Florence Carter-Wood who, in one of the most bizarre acts of a newlywed, attempted suicide on their honeymoon. (She succeeded two years later, swallowing cyanide.) The exhibition includes two equestrian portraits of Florence. In the first, “The Morning Ride: Florence Munnings on Horseback” (1913), she’s on a sprightly gray horse, her red hacking jacket enlivening the edge of the dappled woods through which she rides. In the second, “Portrait of an Equestrienne: Florence Munnings on the Grey Mare” (1914), painted just months before her death, she’s dressed in black, the atmosphere is darker, and horse and rider are set against a leaden sky.

“Munnings: Out in the Open,” is an admirable survey of his art. Here one sees how he learned from Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyke, Edgar Degas, the Impressionists and especially John Singer Sargent, an artist also once forgotten for decades. “The White Canoe” (1922) and many other paintings in the exhibition document Munnings’s debt to Sargent’s brilliant technique.

Yet Munnings never was a slavish follower of any particular idiom and it is difficult to trace a linear development in his work as he continually adapted his style to his subjects. He was a painter’s painter, not given to theorizing, but to the production of thousands of paintings during a lifetime devoted to art.

At the outbreak of World War I, he repeatedly volunteered for service, but was rejected because of his blind eye. Eventually, he was posted to a Canadian Cavalry Brigade as a war artist in France. There, close to the German front in 1918, he painted in a single day an equestrian portrait of the unit’s commander, Maj. Gen. Jack Seely, astride his charger, Warrior. It is one of the highlights of the exhibition. Dashed down in just browns and greys, it conveys not only the grim determination of horse and rider but also the cold bleakness of the shell-mutilated landscape of the Western front.

This was an early example of a type which would later make Munnings a fortune and, unfortunately, overshadow the wide variety of other subjects he painted: the equestrian portrait of the fox hunter and mount in repose or in the hunting field, commissioned by the aristocracy of England and numerous wannabes. There are a number of such pictures in the exhibition, some action filled, like “Whipper-In on the Cornish Cliff” (c. 1913), with its stunning view of cliff, sea and surf, and others more formal, like the elegant “Mr. Paul Mellon on ‘Dublin'” (1933). But one feels, as Munnings did, that the formal constraints of the latter do not display the full range of his talent. For that we must turn to the numerous other paintings here, especially those of hunting and horse racing, which gleam with action, color and excitement.

But the exhibition’s most memorable painting of horse and rider is the 1922 portrait of his second wife, Violet McBride. (Almost as eccentric as her husband, Violet published a diary of her Pekingese, Black Night, and had him stuffed after he died.) The painting shows a slightly smiling Violet standing, dressed in an elegant black riding habit, hand on hip, holding the reins of her grey mount. The originality of her dismounted pose, and the asymmetrical arrangement of horse and rider are striking, as is the picture’s setting—only faintly suggested by the broad, abstract bands of browns and green. By contrast, the horse’s coat is a wonder of closely observed light, shade and texture set down in a flurry of fluid, heavily laden brush strokes.

An exhibition in the museum’s library, “Sir Alfred J. Munnings in Print: Unpublished Letters and Drawings,” accompanies the paintings show, and “Summer in February,” a new film about the artist’s tragic first marriage starring “Downton Abbey” heartthrob Dan Stevens, was just released in the U.K. A major monograph by Munnings expert Lorian Peralta-Ramos will appear next year. And Tate Britain has included Munnings’s “Their Majesties’ Return From Ascot” (1925) in its newly reopened reinstallation of its permanent collection, restoring it to public view for the first time in nearly 25 years. Will all this be enough to rehabilitate Munnings? Let’s hope so.

Bruce Cole is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

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