The following review appears courtesy of and with grateful thanks to Jenny Antill:
On 18th May a well-attended meeting of the Little Waldingfield History Society much enjoyed an illustrated talk about the life of Sir Alfred Munnings. The lecture was given by Marcia Whiting, a representative of the Castle House Museum in Dedham, which was the artist's home from 1919 until his death in 1959.
Ms. Whiting gave us a broadly chronological exposition of Munnings' life and works. He was a true son of Suffolk, being born at Mendham Mill on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. At 14 he was apprenticed to a printer in Norwich who specialised in posters, and we saw one or two examples of this early work. In his spare time he took lessons at the Norwich School of Art, and, once his apprenticeship was over, he decided to become a full time artist, despite an accident that deprived him of the sight of one eye. In 1899, when Munnings was 20, two of his paintings were accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and later in life, in 1944, he became President of the Royal Academy.
Unable to fully participate in the First World War, Munnings contributed to the war effort in various civilian capacities, and towards the end of the conflict was appointed artist to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. We were shown a number of his portraits of soldiers on horseback, and also the great panorama of the last great cavalry charge in history: ‘The charge of Flowerdew's Squadron'
After the war, in 1919, Munnings purchased Castle house in Dedham, where he lived for the rest of his life, painting horses and also landscape and other works. It is clear, that like Thomas Gainsborough, who he greatly admired, Munnings' favourite genre was landscape painting. However, for economic reasons, he was obliged to continue with portraiture. The artist was firmly anti-modernism and his works might be seen as rather old fashioned for the 20th Century. The equine pictures and the landscapes do have their own distinctive style and an atmosphere that is redolent of the first half of the last century.
Munnings himself came over as a charming, convivial, and interesting man. His personal life was not without tragedy. He twice married elegant women who were fine horsewomen, but his first marriage ended when his wife committed suicide. His second marriage was happy, but he did not have any children.
It was mentioned that Munnings was one of a group of local notables who came together in 1956 to raise money for the purchase of Gainsborough's birthplace in Sudbury, with a view to creating a museum to commemorate the artist. In this connection I am taking the liberty of quoting an extract from my contribution to a recent book about the statue of Gainsborough that stands in the Market Square.
‘Fund raising in what was still a period of some economic austerity and international upheaval was not easy (it was the year of the Suez crisis), and the money came in slowly. However at the end of 1956 the appeal was boosted considerably by the generosity of Munnings, who gave a picture to be sold to raise money for the fund. As he wrote to Mr Coates, the Town Clerk of Sudbury: ‘You will have seen in the Times today that I have given a picture of the Queen's horse, Aureole, being saddled at Epsom for the Coronation Cup Race to the Gainsborough House Fund, that you and the Committee are selling it for £1500 at the Bond Street Gallery -that it is already sold……see you next Monday, Come early and have a drink with me' (1)
Ms. Whiting's talk was illustrated by slides that included many paintings that today hang at the Castle House Museum in Dedham. These alone would certainly be worth the trip to Dedham, but the house sounds very interesting in itself. It remains much as it was at the time of Munnings' death in 1959, and retains the atmosphere of a family home. The talk to Little Waldingfield History Society stimulated a good deal of interest in organising a group visit to the museum later in the summer.
(1) Jenny Antill, Gainsborough's birthplace, a living and lively memorial, in The Painter, the Princess & the Statue, edited by Valerie Herbert, Sudbury Museum Trust, 2013. p.59.
Our next event will be on 22nd June at 7.30 in The Parish Room, when Jenny returns to regale us all with her talk on ‘The Bronze Horseman, a tale of St. Petersburg'. This extensively illustrated talk tells the history of the city as reflected in two iconic artworks - a bronze statue of Peter in Senate Square and the poem about the statue ‘The Bronze Horseman' by Alexander Pushkin, the 19th century ‘Russian Shakespeare'. We will all learn about madness, obsession, murder, exile, revolution and floods.
We look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room for what is sure to be a most fascinating evenings entertainment and a truly fitting talk with which to complete this years season. Don't fear however, as we have already booked ten more fantastic talks to commence in September, and will be advising members and others over the summer.
Andy Sheppard 24th May 2016