Connoisseurs and collectors once treated sporting art with condescension. In our time the Establishment recognises Sir Alfred Munnings as one of the two greatest painters of equestrian portraits and rural life in the history of English, or even world art.
His reputation soars; works of art fetch prices in the millions, up there with Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, and David Hockney. He follows in the tradition of much loved English masters, Constable and Gainsborough. Both were inspired by the same East Anglian landscape.
Munnings rose from obscure provincial artist, a miller’s son, to become one of the leading painters of his generation.
Even early paintings of gipsy encampments, wild ponies, and county fairs in long ago East Anglia are enjoying brisk sales for their vitality and technical brilliance.
By 1949 Munnings was wealthy and famous, in 1944 he had achieved a prestigious position in cultural society, President of the Royal Academy of Arts. He was lionised on both sides of the Atlantic by the Astors and Rothschilds, the British Royal Family.
Close friends included Winston Churchill, poet laureate John Masefield; architect Edwin Lutyens, Dame Laura Knight, painter with her own unique vision of English Bohemian life.
Best known for portraits of glossy thoroughbreds, Munnings was as passionate about the English countryside as the Horse.
In his own words: ´I paint horses because I know about horses, and I love horses. Look at the curve of that horse’s hoof! Took me days to get that right. Not as easy as you think.’
Munnings, sportsman and romantic, deserves celebration for his beds of flowers. lakes and meadows, boating and picnics, country people at their leisure.
He felt a ‘chill’ when he realised that ‘much that was beautiful was slipping away’ He found it heart-wrenching to see the horse replaced by the machine. It was the end of Arcadia.
Munnings biographer Tristram Lewis writes: ‘this exhibition is a rare opportunity to marvel at Munnings’ jewel-like, glorious depiction of English country life in the first half of the 20th century.
He continues: Munnings’ eighty years spanned that extraordinary period from the late Victorian age to the summer before the sixties and a burgeoning modern world. His condemnation of ‘so-called modern art’ would remain indelibly part of his legacy. ‘
The most talented and influential people of his era relished his society, including Winston Churchill, architect Edwin Lutyens, poet laureate John Masefield, Dame Laura Knight, painter of circuses and gipsies. The Chelsea Arts Club was his second home.
By 1944 he had reached the pinnacle of his career, then at a dinner in 1949, made headlines with an incendiary speech condemning modern art and the ‘distortions’ of Picasso and Matisse.
He is ill-defined by these controversial opinions. He was a man of humour and goodwill, a joie de vivre, which added to the gaiety of any gathering. His friends were among the most distinguished and influential people in society. At one musical evening, he took complete control of the entertainment, teaching the company the choruses of hunting songs which he sang with vigour and a sense of rhythm. A guest reported: ‘never had I come across such extraordinary vitality’
‘He was the stable, the artist, the poet, the very land itself.'
(The exhibition is presented and hosted by the British Sporting Art Trust)