Alfred Munnings

Alfred Munnings

From a stable hand to president of the Royal Academy

British impressionist, Alfred Munnings, is best known for his depictions of horses. Munnings spent most of his life in the rural Suffolk countryside, where his parents owned a mill. The artist was surrounded by horses from an early age and is known to have been a stable hand as a young boy. It is not surprising that his exposure to rural life and his fascination with the freedom of travellers living in the countryside, led to his passion and talent for equine portraiture, such as the subject matter of the present example. Today, his portraits of such subjects remain some of the most sought after and celebrated in the field.

The artist lost sight in his right eye at the age of 20 and following this accident, during the First World War, Munnings volunteered his service. His disability combined with his love of horses led to him acquiring the responsibility of processing thousands of animals as they headed to war in France. Munnings was posted to the Western Front to work at a horse remounting depot (a department responsible for the purchasing and training of horses prior to and during the war). After this exposure to life during the war, the subject of his work became more military inspired, and subsequently, in 1918 he was approached to take on the role of an official war artist for the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. Munnings was commissioned to record the activities of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Canadian Forestry Corps. As part of this project, he painted many examples of Canadian generals and their steeds. Forty-five of these examples were exhibited in 1919 at the Royal Academy in London, bringing his work extensive recognition. Today, Munning’s legacy as an artist of war remains: a collection of his works was exhibited in 2023 at the Canadian War Museum from the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art. The museum has claimed that the artist’s work largely contributes to our ability to understand Canada’s experience of the First World War.

As his artistic career flourished Munnings became rather outspoken about his hatred of Modernism. Lorain Peralta-Ramos (author of the Catalogue Raisonné) recalled that ‘it was heart-wrenching for him to see the horse replaced by the machine’, echoing his fascination with the animals, and his desire for a simple life in the country; a longing that inspired his work.

Munnings successful career led to his role as president of the Royal Academy of Arts from 1944 until 1949, when Sir Gerald Kelly succeeded him. Castle house, located in Dedham (Suffolk) was where he lived and worked with his second wife, Violet McBride for 40 years until his death in 1959. It was Munning’s wish the leave his house to the public, and so the picturesque building is now the location of the Munnings Museum, which holds the largest collection of his work.

SIR ALFRED J. MUNNINGS, P.R.A. (1878-1959) The Norwich Staghounds' Point-to-Point , 1902

SIR ALFRED J. MUNNINGS, P.R.A. (1878-1959)
The Norwich Staghounds' Point-to-Point, 1902
signed and dated 'A. J Munnings, 1902' (lower right)

Estimate £70,000 - £100,000

The present example, which is up for auction in our Old Masters and 19th Century art and works on paper sale (1st of May 2024), comes to sale from a Private UK Collection. The work showcases the artist’s ability to portray horses, encapsulating their power and elegance with great skill and authenticity.  The spontaneity of the brushwork reveals a sense of painting in plein air, where his virtuosity is evident. With impressionistic vigour, Munnings has filled the composition with a subtle, yet characteristic, nuanced palette.