The village of Dedham is in a sublimely pretty corner of Essex — especially on an autumn day. Tourists come here on an art pilgrimage seeking to find out more about two artists with deep connections to this East Anglian landscape. Many of us are familiar with Constable and his famous horse-drawn 'Haywain', painted at nearby Flatford Mill, but what about the equestrian artist Alfred Munnings (1878-1959)?
If you know your horses you can see the thickened tendons of a racehorse turned hunter, the tucked up posture of a horse on the first world war front line, the tail flick of a gypsy pony brushing away a summer fly. But mostly Munnings paints the most beautiful horses, at peak condition. A lot of these were his own horses. Perhaps his most famous works are the race starts (which bizarrely I find I confuse with Degas' paintings) and the colourful carnival of travellers at Epsom Down during Derby race week or at horse fairs like Lavenham in nearby Suffolk.
As a bonus the gallery has a wonderful cafe open two hours before the exhibition. The food is terrific and the setting bucolic — green lawns, green fields, birdsong.
This is easy art: Munnings had an eye for beauty with a happy focus on horses and good looking women. For that period he was rather old-fashioned although that didn't stop him liking a party. Born on 8 October in 1878, Munnings was brought up in a mill, just like the one Constable painted in the Haywains (Flatford Mill). His natural artistic skills saw him apprenticed to a lithograph printer at 14-years-old. Over the years he developed a conservative style that many art critics lampooned. At the same time he had real antipathy to modern art (eg, Picasso, Henry Moore, Salvador Dali). Indeed his resigning speech as the President of the Royal Academy, in 1949, focussed exactly on modern art's limitations. It didn't go down that well with the diners.
Munnings was embroiled in the hunting set and made a good deal of money doing expensive portraits for the Belvoir Hunt followers, and others. His first big London show was in 1913, Horses, Hunting & Country Life at Leicester Galleries. By the 1920s he could charge £500 a canvas, which is £21,000 in today's money. He met his second wife Violet McBride, who loved to hunt, at Richmond horse show, and she clearly brought him social status and many equestrian commissions. Munnings did follow hounds but apparently he enjoyed long hacks on his own even more.
He bought his first horse when he was in his 20s and kept riding until the end off his life. Munnings knew how much he owed to his horses (quoted in the book pictured above AJ Munnings by Stanley Booth on sale at the Munnings Museum): "Although they have given me much trouble and many sleepless nights, they have been my supporters, friends — my destiny in fact. Looking back at my life, interwoven with theirs - painting them, feeding them, riding them, thinking about them — I hope that I have learned something of their ways. I have never ceased to understand them."
|Munnings Museum is in this yellow painted house. When AJ Munnings moved|
here he called it his "dream home".
I fell for a showstopper, painted in 1932 - My Wife, My Horse, Myself. It's a conceited but beautiful painting of Lady Munnings riding sidesaddle on a stylish English thoroughbred outside her beautiful country home, in the corner her proud husband smiles by a canvas of the same painting. It's a show off portrait of Munnings' possessions, capturing the swank (albeit horse-centred) lifestyle of this miller boy-made-establishment.
It also owes plenty to the then popular hunting writer, Surtees who barked (surely he must have barked!): "Three things I never lend - my 'boss, my wife and my name." It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1935, a rocky time in British finances, which might well be why it's also been dubbed: "The most defiantly British picture of the 20th century". Strangely it's the sort of insult that Munnings would have been taken as a compliment.
|Painters Constable and Munnings would still recognise the River Stour at|
Flatford Mill, just in Suffolk. It's now a very popular tourist spot.
But that doesn't stop a real sense of joy when you see Munnings' wonderful paintings (this collection has more than 4000) in his old home in this elegant Georgian family house. It's a visual delight to go into every room, and the studio, and see pictures which such a strong sense of place (there are around 150 on display).
|I've been longing to see Munnings' paintings, but took my time figuring out|
how to get from Manningtree train station, Essex (seen here with a glowing sunset).
Munnings, by then pushing 40, has been blinded when he was just 19. For most of us a thorn striking your eye would be a life disaster. For a teenager starting out on his artistic career, without much money behind him, this should have signalled the end. Somehow Munnings overcame the disability forcing his sole good eye to let him paint well — damn well — again.
Gallop over to see his paintings in the house where he lived if you get the chance. And don't forget to take a break at the Garden Cafe.
How to get there: An early autumn day was perfect for the four or so mile walk across the
water meadows from Manningtree station via Flatford Mill (plus 20 more minutes from Dedham village). A friend with a car was a bonus. There are also taxis from Manningtree and a bus (see Munnings Museum website, then double check with coach provider).
- More info at https://www.munningsmuseum.org.uk
- Address: Castle House, Castle Hill, Dedham, Colchester, Essex CO7 6AZ
- The museum closes for the winter on 31 October 2018 and reopens approx Good Friday (April 2019), check website. Admission is £10.
- Check Garden Cafe opening times firstname.lastname@example.org, tel: 01206 322127 (option 5)