Celebrating Munnings love of life on the river
PUBLISHED: 10:33 26 September 2017
Alfred Munnings is revered as one of the nation’s greatest painters of horses. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at a new exhibition which shows that he was also a man who loved life on the water.
For many people Sir Alfred Munnings was one of this country’s great equine artists but as The Munning’s Art Musuem in Dedham demonstrates in their latest exhibition Munnings and The River there was more to Munnings than being a painter of horses.
Drawing from the Museum’s vast collection, exhibition curator Marcia Whiting has created a show which allows them to not only to celebrate Munnings love of rivers and the countryside but also to communicate directly with the public.
Marcia explains: “Because of the archive has now been digitised, I have been able to use Alfred Munnings’ letters, extracts from his autobiography and other writings to allow him to guide visitors through the exhibition.
“We follow a largely chronological route through the exhibition before we end up looking at two works in detail – A Barge on the Stour at Dedham, 1930s and September Afternoon 1939 (The White Canoe) – which Munnings kept returning to and painted many times.
“We have four finished versions of each painting plus several sketches, studies and early watercolours. We have tried to give a sense of the man behind the easel as we have this wonderful opportunity to show works that, perhaps, are not seen that often.”
The inspiration for the exhibition came from the museum’s involvement in the BBC’s Fame and Fortune programme, with Fiona Bruce, when they helped authenticate a landscape as a genuine Munnings.
“It was a river scene,” says Marcia, “And during the course of researching that picture we realised just how many river scenes and landscapes we had in the collection. Also, they aren’t just landscapes because many feature his second wife Violet as well as a number of his close friends, so we get to see something of Munnings the man as well as Munnings the artist.”
One of the paintings that forms a centre piece during the early part of the exhibition is Tagg’s Island c1919 which shows Munnings and his friends enjoying a carefree picnic by the River Thames the summer after Armistice. Just seeing the vivid colours, the relaxed happy faces, Munnings ability to capture the heat and light of a summer’s day, you can feel the sense of relief that war was over and that optimism was in the air.
The painting acts as a valuable piece of social history capturing the clothes and fashions of the era as well as a sense of the times in which the work was created.
When World War II came along 20 years later, Munnings’ house Castle Hill was requisitioned by the army and Munnings took himself off to Exmoor to paint and produced a wide array of landscapes depicted the rivers and streams which cut their way through the isolated Devon landscape.
It’s a world which had remained largely unchanged for centuries and inspired Munnings to work his way through the dark times of the war.
Of course, horses were always an important part of Munnings’ life and they make an appearance in several of his landscapes. In the opening display of the exhibition we are greeted with a beautiful image of a young girl in a blue dress leading a white pony along a tow path next to a river.
Hanging next to that wonderfully finished oil, is a swiftly executed painted sketch of a soldier, riding a horse through a stream. The horse is clearly enjoying itself as it is lifting its hooves up and splashing them down into the water.
Apart from his amazing ability to capture the character and the anatomy of horses, the greatness of Munnings is his ability to animate a still image. Looking at all the pictures you get a sense that these are caught moments in time, that something was happening both before and after Munnings decided to immortalise that moment on canvas.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in his magnificent 1910 painting The Ford which shows one of his grooms leading a herd of horses through a stream. Munnings was only a young man at the time but he manages to invest the picture with an almost 3D quality and the lead horses, looking straight at you, appear to be about to leap out from the frame and into the gallery space.
There is so much energy and activity in the picture that it takes your breath away. Unfortunately, Munnings himself wasn’t so enthusiastic about the work and called it one of his heroic failures.
“One of the traits of a great artist is that they are never satisfied with their work. Whereas we can enjoy this impressive, powerful piece of work, all they can see are the mistakes and imperfections,” Marcia observed.
The exhibition runs until October 29 at The Munnings Art Museum, Castle Hill, Dedham. The Museum will re-open on the March 30 2018. A book ‘Munnings and the River - in his Own Words’, written by Marcia Whiting will shortly be available to accompany the exhibition which will continue next season with a revised hang.