1878 - 1959
Alfred Munnings served a six-year apprenticeship with a firm of lithographers in Norwich (1892-1898), a training that gave him a firm grounding in composition and draftsmanship. He studied painting at evening classes. After his apprenticeship he supported himself as a freelance graphic designer. A brief period at the Académie Julian in Paris (1902-1903), and later a visit to Germany (1909), brought him into direct contact with Impressionism, and he began painting with lively colours and fluid brushwork, a style that would remain largely unchanged throughout his career. His commitment to painting directly from nature, together with his keen interest in scenes of country life – notably gypsies and horse fairs – drew him to the artists’ colony in Newlyn, Cornwall, in 1911. Typical of this period is Departure of the Hop-pickers (1913; National Gallery, Melbourne, Australia).
As war artist to the Canadian government during World War I, he painted General Seeley on Horseback (1918; Canadian War Museum, Ottawa), a work that established a long and successful career as a painter of portraits and equestrian subjects. Examples of his equestrian subjects include The Ascot Procession Crossing Windsor Park (1925; British Royal Collection), which was commissioned by Queen Mary; and Under Starter’s Orders (1957; Munnings Art Museum, Dedham, Essex). His renown as a society portrait painter preceded him to the USA, where he spent six prolific months during 1926. Throughout his career he continued to paint outdoor scenes, such as Epsom Downs (1919; Tate Britain), and also landscapes, for example From My Bedroom Window (1930; Tate Britain).
He participated in many exhibitions in London, usually at the Royal Academy or the Royal Institute, and elsewhere, notably in Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow. He became a member of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1929. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1926, and was elected President (and also knighted) in 1944. He used his position as President to support what he saw as tradition values in art, and in a controversial speech in 1949 – one that was significant in helping to define post-war British art – he attacked ‘modern art’ in general and Picasso in particular.
His three-part autobiography, which provides a lively account of British social and artistic life in Britain during the first half of the 20th century, was published as An Artist’s Life (1950), The Second Burst (1951), and The Finish (1952). His home in Dedham, Essex, is now a museum of his work.
2004, The Edwardians: Secrets and Desires, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (travelling exhibition)
1986, Athenaeum Gallery, Manchester; York City Art Gallery, and the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Aberdeen (AG): Gypsy Life
Birmingham (Mus. and AG): Arrival at the Epsom Downs for Derby Week; In Cornwall (Portrait of Artist’s Wife)
Brighton (Hove Mus. & AG): Landscape with Cow (1912, oil on canvas)
Bristol (City Mus. & AG): Stranded
Dedham (Sir Alfred Munnings AM): large collection of works
Eastbourne (Towner AG): Beach Scene (1905, oil on canvas)
Liverpool (Lady Lever AG): The Friesian Bull (1920, reworked 1920-1947, oil on canvas)
London (Tate Collection): Epsom Downs – City and Suburban Day (1919, oil on canvas); Their Majesties’ Return from Ascot (1925, oil on canvas)
New Haven (Yale Center For British Art): Saddling Up for the Grand National (in the Centre the Winner ‘Poethlyn’) (1919, oil on canvas); Portrait of a Sporting Lady (1929, oil on canvas); Paul Mellon on Dublin (1933, oil on canvas); Portrait of Lord Derby’s Stallion, ‘Fairway’, Painted at Newmarket (1936, oil on canvas); Portrait of Lord Derby’s ‘Hyperion’ (oil on canvas); Start at Newmarket, Study No. 4 (oil on panel)
Norwich (Castle Mus. and AG): Sunny June; Horse Sale; Watering Horses: Canadian Troops in France
Pittsburgh (Carnegie MA): Changing Horses (1920, oil on canvas)
Preston: Horse Dealer
Sydney (AG of New South Wales): A Selworthy Landscape (oil on panel); A Canadian Soldier (1918, watercolour over pencil); The Master of the Hounds (watercolour); The Coming Storm (1925, oil on canvas)
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