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a word on art

Equine Treasures at the Munnings Museum, Dedham



Sir Alfred James Munnings is acclaimed as the greatest equestrian artist of the twentieth century, being recognized specifically for his energetic hunting and sporting scenes. He is equally celebrated for his very personal interpretations of the English landscape and as an exquisite portrait painter. A figurative painter who outwardly rejected Modernism, Munnings’ style and brushstrokes were influenced by Impressionism, using naturalistic colours to depict the English countryside and surrounding areas.


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. This led to his deepening interest in the equine world that would later propel him into becoming the foremost English twentieth century painter of sporting pictures.


In 1919 Munnings acquired Castle House in Dedham, where he lived until his death in 1959. This beautiful house, partly Tudor and partly Georgian, fits harmoniously into its rural environment, with a splendid garden and a horse paddock which is still used today. The house remains as it was in the 1960’s when Munnings widow Eliza passed away, bequeathing the house and its collection of Munnings’ six hundred and fifty oil paintings and fifty watercolours to the public.


We were guided through a majestic entrance hall, in which Munnings’ large scale lithographic prints were displayed from his early career when he was an apprentice to a firm of lithographers in the 1890s. The dining room and drawing rooms are still furnished as they were when Sir and Lady Munnings lived, providing an insight into their domestic splendor whilst also showcasing the artist’s career.


Following room after room, it was outstanding to see the immeasurable talent and artistic skill of this fine painter. Hunting scenes, portraits and serene landscapes of the surrounding English countryside were aplenty. Upstairs, we were treated to an abundance of racing scenes, so vibrant in their brushstrokes and vivid colours.


Celebrated as a great colourist, Munnings preferred painting outdoors in natural light, even on the coldest of days, only later working up his studies in the studio. Painting with a quick technique, Munnings applied his paint in sure, thick strokes achieving a densely textured surface, thus enlivening his subject despite the monochromatic palette of the English countryside. Munnings was the first painter to note that the coat of a living horse reflects the colours of the sky and its surroundings and it was this technique combined with the vigour of Munnings’s rich impasto brushwork that marks him out as the greatest equestrian artist of the twentieth century.


When Munnings purchased Castle House he had his entire studio moved from its previous location in Swainsthorpe, Norfolk to Dedham. This enormous thatched studio, with purpose built windows in the roof to enable as much natural light to enter as possible, was dismantled and brought to its present location by train and cart where it was re-erected in Munnings garden where it still stands today.


This vast studio contains many relics of Munnings past and provides an insight into his working practice and technique. I was delighted to discover Munnings great talent as a sculptor. His armature models of horses, which he sculpted himself, enabled him to capture the poses of his favored subjects when not painting from real life. There was an abundance of various painting palettes and brushes which revealed the artists preference for painting en plein air, using a smaller palette which was easier to hold than the larger studio palettes, which remain ladened with oil paint as though it was only yesterday that the artist put down his brushes.


For more information on our most recent acquisition of Munnings work, December Morning, Cornwall, painted in around 1913 whilst the artist was living in Cornwall prior to the First World War, please read here or contact ella@gladwellpatterson.com

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