Alfred Munnings had more than his share of drama in his long and colourful life, regarded by Augustus John as ‘greater than Stubbs. He made it move, had greater narrative quality and his groupings are better.’ He certainly had colossal painterly skills, a unique palette and, as a rider himself. a complete understanding of how horses behave, stand and move. He also could capture a landscape at any given time of day, from early morning to dusk, with assured and fluid brushstrokes, and when horses are added to the composition, the results are swaggering in their vibrancy. It is blindingly obvious that he just loved horses, not just painting them, but riding them, going to horse fairs and living with gypsies in Suffolk and Norfolk, following them around with his own blue-painted caravan and a young gypsy boy called Shrimp, who acted as his principal model. He was injured as a twenty-year-old, when a briar he was holding for his dog to pass under, sprung back and took an eye out. This effectively ruled him out of active service in the Great War, but, at the age of 37, he volunteered to play some part in the care of army horses, which led, the following year, to his attachment to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and he was commissined by the Canadian War Memorials Fund, created by Lord Beaverbrook to document and memorialise the Canadian war effort both at home and on the Western Front. The first painting he did at the Front was of Major-General Sir Jack Seely, astride his legendary mount Warrior, which Munnings subsequently rode many times, and which lead to further commissions and helped to establish him as a leading equestrian painter. After Seely had posed for the initial sitting, he was substituted by his batman, dressed in the Brigadier’s decorated uniform, and both men were amused as officers and troopers saluted him as they passed by.
After the Germans advanced in 1918, he was switched to painting the Canadian Forestry Corps felling trees and cutting lumber. In total, they produced 750,000 tonnes of timber, much of which was previously imported by ship from Canada and the USA. Hundreds of thousands of horses and mules were used by the British Army during the First World War, of which nearly half a million were killed. One astonishing fact that emerged after the War, was that more hay and oats by weight were shipped to France than ammunution. Munnings painted log hauling, jamming and loading in the forests behind the front lines and in the Jura mountains in southeast France, as well as cavalrymen out on patrol and watering their charges, all done with a deft hand and little masterful flecks of zinc white amongst the swirling dark colours. The year following the Armistice, there was an exhibition of British and Canadian artists in London, and subsequently in New York, Montreal and Toronto, telling the story of Canada at war, with some forty-five paintings by Munnings, and a few weeks later, he when he was elected as an Associate Academician, and from then on, his future was secure. Before he went to France, his private life took a nose-dive, when he met and subsequenly married a painter and horsewoman, Florence Carter-Wood, who, for reasons unknown, tried to kill herself on their honeymoon by taking cyanide. Munnings claimed that the marriage was never consumated, and she began an affair with one of his friends in Cornwall, Captain Gilbert Evans, a Welsh army officer and local land agent, while Munnings was very close to Laura Knight, wife of Harold and all members of the Newlyn School. When Evans left for a posting in Nigeria, Florence was distraught and took her own life by taking the remainder of the poison. Munnings was re-married in 1920 to another horsewoman, Violet McBride, who encouraged him to capitalise on society portraiture and hunting scenes, which made him rich and famous.
He had been a member of Chelsea Arts Club since 1913, but his unconventional manner, raucous behaviour and foul tap-room language, upset many fellow members. He was a great raconteur and singer of bawdy songs, surrounded by a jovial bunch of drinkers at the bar or in the Dining Room, while getting well-and-truly plastered. He was hauled up before the Council for his so-called ‘bad behaviour,’ and dismissed from the Club in 1920, and it took until the 1950s for him to be allowed back in. There was more trouble ahead. Munnings was elected to the RA in 1925and elected President in 1944. He was made a Knight Bachelor in the same year, and appointed a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in the 1947 New Year Honours, but the wheels fell off at his valedictory speech at the Annual Banquet in 1949 when, well-oiled, he slammed into the so-called ‘modernists’, with a side-swipe at Picasso and Matisse. This was in the presence of Sir Winston Churchill, who had recently been appointed Honorary Academician Extraordinary, but the worst aspect of this alcohol-fuelled outburst was that it was broadcast live by the BBC. His reputation was in tatters and he retired to his beautiful home and studio, Castle House in Dedham in Essex, now The Munnings Art Museum, which is a glorious tribute to this extraordinarily talented, but irascible, artist. If one’s appetite has been whetted by his war paintings, the Museum is a must-see destination, an hour and a half from London, in the beautiful Stour Valley.
Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918
National Army Museum
Until 3 March 2019