The Foxearth and District Local History Society

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Visit to The Munnings Art Museum, Dedham - 14th June 2022

Castle House, Dedham, Essex:  the home of Sir Alfred Munnings

Few artists achieved fame and fortune in their lifetime as Sir Alfred James Munnings did, and fewer still have made the nation the beneficiary of their life’s work, as was always his wish.

Munnings ultimately became known as one of England's finest painters of horses, and as an outspoken critic of Modernism. Yet the overriding impression taken away by our visitors was one of an amazingly varied body of work, painted in many styles: cartoons, impressionist, formal works, sculpture, etc. His love was of painting landscapes and lively country scenes - but the formal portraits commissioned by wealthy clients made his fortune!

Museum Director, Jenny Hand, treated our 20 members & visitors to a fascinating in-depth look at highlights from over 200 paintings, drawings and sculpture on display at the Castle House, Munnings Art Museum. The exhibition is laid out in chronological order and Jenny used the displays to illustrate different stages of his career and the diversity of his work.

Alfred Munnings was born in 1878 at Mendham Mill, Suffolk, where his father was Miller. His boyhood talent was very evident in sketches of a working mill with horses and horse-drawn carts. He left school at 14, to take up an apprenticeship with a firm of lithographers in Norwich, and worked as a poster artist for the next six years, attending the Norwich School of Art in his spare time. His early work showed his ability to use light and shade, and his gift for humour, character and facial expression, seen in posters for Caley’s Chocolates (“lovely girls in large hats”), and Colman’s mustard.

When his apprenticeship ended, he became a full-time painter, despite the loss of sight in one eye from a freak accident when a briar thorn pierced the eye. He returned to his first studio in Mendham, and painted horses, village characters, hunting themes and landscapes.

One of his earliest commissions was a painting of John Shaw Tomkins, director of Cayley's chocolates and early patron, posing with his collie dog on a garden seat. Tomkins greatly encouraged him and took him on many tours to the Continent. In 1899 two of his pictures were shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

In 1911, he was attracted to Cornwall and the Newlyn School of painters, where met Florence Carter-Wood, a young horsewoman and painter. They married on 19 January 1912, but she tragically committed suicide in 1914.

Munnings volunteered to join the Army at the outbreak of war, but was assessed as unfit to fight. Eventually his talent was employed as war artist to a Canadian Cavalry Brigade, in the latter part of the war. He painted many scenes, including a portrait of “General Jack Seely mounted on his horse Warrior” and “The Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron”.

These works sealed his reputation and wealth, and in 1919 Munnings bought Castle House, Dedham, describing it as 'the house of my dreams’. He remarried in 1920; his second wife was another horsewoman, Violet McBride. He used the house and adjoining studio extensively throughout the rest of his career. The Studio was originally located at his aunt’s farmhouse in Swainsthorpe, Norfolk. It was dismantled in 1919 and brought to Castle House, by train and cart, where it was re-erected in the garden where it still stands today.

Munnings was elected president of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1944 and knighted in the same year. He did not really enjoy the administrative and formal presidency. And he did not hide his negative feelings about modern and abstract art - his witty and provocative 1956 painting entitled “Does the Subject Matter?” was a highlight of our visit.

Munnings died at Castle House in July 1959 and his ashes were interred at St Paul's Cathedral. There were no children from either marriage and, following his wishes, Lady Munnings turned their house in Dedham into a museum of his work, complete with furniture and artefacts, all set in 40 acres of attractive gardens and grounds. The museum now owns 650 of his oil paintings and 50 watercolours, making it the largest collection of his work in the world.

It was a memorable outing, and we highly recommend a visit to anyone.