SIR ALFRED JAMES MUNNINGS
Sir Alfred James Munnings was born in Mendham, Suffolk in 1878. His father was a miller and Munnings was brought up on a working mill with horses being part of his daily life, leading to his deepening interest in the equine world that would later propel him into becoming the foremost English twentieth-century painter of sporting pictures. Munnings was apprenticed to a firm of lithographers from 1893 to 1898, and went on to study at the Norwich School of Art and in Paris where he was impressed with en plein air naturalism. Upon returning to England, Munnings became a full time painter and set up his own studio in Mendham where he predominantly painted scenes of country life and particularly horse fairs.
In 1898 Munnings lost his sight in his right eye in an accident, but this did not deter him from painting. The following year Munnings exhibited two paintings at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, for which he gained a growing reputation for his painting. His love for the East Anglian landscape and its rural pursuits was further enhanced after a visit to a horse fair in 1901. The enthralling world of gypsy travellers as well as that of hunting and horse racing offered Munnings a wide range of subject matter that would tie in with his passion for landscape and horses. In the early 1900s Munnings lived and worked in Swainsthorpe, five miles south of Norwich, where he had persuaded his aunt Polly Hills to rent part of Church Farm for the princely sum of £10 per annum. Munnings built a studio in the grounds and acquired a small band of ponies, horses and donkeys to serve as models for his works. He remained at Church Farm for some time inspired by the surrounding area. At a later date, he decided to invest in a blue caravan that would serve as a mobile studio enabling him to travel the Norfolk countryside in the company of his ponies, horses and one or two friends.
Munnings visited Cornwall in 1908 and became an important addition to the Newlyn School of artists, finally settling in the artists’ colony at Lamorna in Cornwall in 1911. At the outbreak of the Frist World War, Munnings enlisted despite having the use of only one eye. Rather than on the front lines, he instead became an army horse trainer near Reading and in 1918 travelled to France as an official war artist attached to the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The oil paintings and sketches that Munnings produced provide an insight into the men of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Canadian Forestry Corps. Munnings paintings demonstrate both the important role of the cavalry on the Western Front and the vital work behind the lines that sustained the war effort. Munnings' wartime artwork was pivotal in establishing his success and securing his admittance to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1919.
In 1919 Munnings painted his first racehorse, Pothlyn, the winner of the Grand National, when the sport revived after the Second World War, and this was followed by magnificent paintings of large-scale Starts and views of horses on the gallops. A well-known figure on the racing scene, Munnings was allowed privileged access to the side of any racetrack that he cared to choose, to make the rapid sketches essential to his working method. Munnings was elected as President of the Royal Academy from 1944 to 1949, and received a knighthood in 1944. In his later career, Munnings became a vocal detractor of Modernism, he is famed for a speech he gave in 1949 in which he claimed the work of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso had corrupted art.
During his lifetime he was represented by Frost & Reed in London and through them his work entered some of the most prestigious private collections of the day. Munnings passed away in 1959 and upon his death his wife turned their home in Dedham into a museum to house his work. His work is also publicly displayed at The Royal Academy, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, the Royal Collection, Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh and other prestigious museums.