Alfred Munnings is certainly one of the most distinguished and best loved of all equestrian painters. He first encountered his favoured subject during the First World War, when classified as unfit to fight, Munnings was given charge of a horse processing centre for army mounts on their way to France. Later, he managed to become attached to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade as a war artist, painting a number of dramatic and popular paintings of it in action. Thereafter, he began to specialise in equestrian portraits and also began to work as an equestrian sculptor, at times with his friend the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
This charming and informal portrait of a grey pony is typical of the kind of work which Munnings was commissioned to paint throughout his career. Probably the much-loved mount of a horse-obsessed child, it typifies the English love of all things equine and the painter’s personal empathy with the eternal bond between man and horse which he had observed and experienced at first hand throughout his life, in both peace and war.
Born in Mendham in Suffolk in 1878, Munnings trained initially as a lithographer before entering Norwich School of Art and going on to study at the celebrated Académie Julian in Paris from 1902-1903. Remarkably, the young Munnings continued to paint, despite losing the sight of his right eye in a tragic accident in 1898 and the following year had two works shown at the Royal Academy.
Initially he painted rural subjects, ranging from landscapes and scenes of country life to Gypsy fairs, cattle and horses. In 1910 Munnings visited the village of Lamorna in Cornwall, becoming associated with the artists of the Newlyn school and while there, met the artists Laura and Harold Knight who became close friends, and also his first wife Florence Carter-Wood. After the war, Munnings made his home at Castle House in Dedham (since 1960 the Munnings Museum), although he also rode from a stables he kept on Exmoor.
In style Munnings’ work might be described as ‘impressionist’ while his subject matter, emphatically traditional, chronicles a world which was, by the 1940s, to some extent coming to an end but which we might now see as the archetype of all that is considered to be quintessentially English. Munnings captures with an unerring eye, not only the thrill of the chase and the vibrancy, wit and charm of the British racing world but also all the seasonal variations of rural life and the quirky characters who inhabited a charmed age and gave it life.
Munnings was knighted in 1944 and that same year succeeded Lutyens as President of the Royal Academy, remaining in the post for five years. However, in his leaving speech, broadcast on the BBC he attacked Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne as the ‘corruptors’ of art. The reactionary tirade did his reputation no favours. No stranger to controversy and with a circle of friends and patrons spanning aristocracy and celebrity, his three-volume autobiography is filled with engaging anecdotes.