HIS LIFE’S WORK SPANNING SIXTY YEARS (1878-1959).
Connoisseurs and collectors of the Art Establishment have looked on sporting art with condescension. Now they honour Sir Alfred Munnings as one of the two greatest painters of equestrian portraits, and the joys of rural life, in the history of English, or even world art. His reputation surges ever higher, his work fetches prices in the millions, up there with Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and David Hockney.
Best known for portraits of glossy thoroughbreds, often with their owners, jockeys, and grooms, Munnings was as passionate about the English countryside as the Horse.
In his own words: ´I paint horses because I know about horses, and I love horses. Look at the curve of that horse’s hoof! Took me days to get that right. Not as easy as you think.’
He was equally devoted to the East Anglia of his childhood, a landscape dear to his fellow great English painters, Constable and Gainsborough. Munnings, both sportsman and romantic, depicts flowers in profusion, fields, lakes, and meadows, boating and picnics, the joys of riding for pleasure.
He felt a ‘chill’ when he realised that ‘much that was beautiful was slipping away’ He found it heart-wrenching to see the horse replaced by the machine. His countryside paintings express nostalgia for a disappearing Arcadia.
Biographer Tristram Lewis writes: ‘this exhibition is a rare opportunity to marvel at Munnings’ jewel-like, glorious depiction of English country life in the first half of the 20th century. ‘
The British Sporting Art Trust exhibition includes some forty-five paintings, drawings, and sculpture representing Sir Alfred Munnings’ life as an artist for over sixty years. Important works were lent by the Household Cavalry, the Harewood House Trust, and the Jockey Club, under the direction of curator Katherine Field.
Biographer Tristram Lewis explains: Munnings’ eighty years spanned that extraordinary period from the late Victorian age to the summer before the sixties and a burgeoning modern world. His condemnation of ‘so-called modern art’ would remain indelibly part of his legacy.’
Son of a Suffolk miller, Alfred Munnings, known as ‘AJ’, rose from provincial obscurity, painting gypsy encampments, wild ponies, and county fairs, to become rich and famous, a country gentleman, at home in the society of Astors, Rothschilds, the English Royal family. His patrons were racehorse owners, trainers, and masters of foxhounds.
The most talented and influential people of that era relished his society- Winston Churchill, architect Edwin Lutyens, Poet Laureate John Masefield and Dame Laura Knight, painter of gypsies and circuses. The Chelsea Arts Club became his second home.
At one musical evening, he took complete control of the entertainment, teaching the company choruses of hunting songs which he performed with extraordinary vigour and a sense of rhythm. He recited the Raven and one guest remembered: ‘never had I come across such extraordinary vitality.’
By 1944 he had reached the pinnacle of a career, having risen from obscurity to become President of the Royal Academy, then at a dinner in 1949, made headlines with an incendiary speech condemning modern art and the ‘distortions’ of Picasso and Matisse. At that point, he had become rich and famous, lionised by Rothschilds and Astors, commissioned to paint an equestrian portrait of The Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood, one of the finest paintings in this new exhibition
He is ill-defined by these controversial opinions; he was a man of humour and goodwill, joie de vivre, which added to the gaiety of any gathering. His friends were among the most distinguished and influential people in society. At one musical evening, he took complete control of the entertainment, teaching the company the choruses of hunting songs which he sang with extraordinary vigour and a sense of rhythm. A guest reported: ‘never had I come across such extraordinary vitality’
‘He was the stable, the artist, the poet, the very land itself.’
Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959)
“A Life of his Own”
April 26th till May 14th 2022
Osborne Studio Gallery,
May 24th till June 12th 2022
The National Horseracing Museum