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Exhibition shows Munnings, one of England's finest equestrian painters, is also brilliant war artist

Words and photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass

Munnings working on a painting, photo in his studio at Castle House. Image: © Neil Hennessy-Vass

A new exhibition of previously unseen works in the UK has opened at Sir Alfred Munnings home in Essex. Principally known as an equestrian painter, he also found fame as a war artist during WW1.  Apprenticed to a Norwich printer and studying art in the evenings, Munnings quickly proved his prodigious talent and accepted his first oil painting portrait commission at the age of only 19, and this is on display at the museum.

Serving in eastern France with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1918, Munnings sketched and painted landscapes, battle scenes and, naturally, horses to document life on the fighting front and the vital logistical work taking place behind the lines.

Now, for the first time in 100 years, forty-one wartime paintings by Munnings are returning to the UK on tour from the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa. In this once-in-a-lifetime display at his former home, Castle House in Dedham, the paintings are shown side by side with the surviving sketchbooks that inspired them. This is the first time these sketchbooks have ever been on public display together with the finished pictures, and provide a unique view of life ‘behind the lines’—in every sense of that phrase.

Drawings by Alfred Munnings of people taking tea in a chateau
Tea in the Chateau, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings © The Munnings Art Museum

What make this exhibition so compelling is the sketchbooks that accompany the paintings.  It is rare to see a war artist’s work in development and the quality of the preparatory work which along with the finished paintings bring the reality of war to life a 101 years on.  His depictions are almost not war like.  Officers in uniform are sometimes the only clue.  A group of men relaxing by a lake with their horses taking water is a striking example of this.  

On the whole these are bright verdant images not of war but the dignity behind conflict.  Munnings never painted a battle scene as such the closest is A Gallant Charge that touches on the action with Canadian Cavalry depicted in full glorious gallop.  Another, A Patrol is more muted in colour and mood showing a lone soldier with three horses.  Has he lost his comrades?  Is he bringing reinforcements or rounding up strays?  We don’t know but the colour palette to me signifies a somber mood that is inescapable like the horrors of war.  

Painting by Munnings of soldiers by a river
Halt on the March by a Stream at Nesle, 1918, by Sir Alfred Munnings © Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum

Life behind the atrocities of the trenches was a much calmer affair with man and beast bonding and working together as equals.  A parallel not stretched to the officers and conscripts.  Munnings' war was depicted as a dignified one, not of imperious glory but of duty and fortitude.  We see men resting in Halt on a March by a stream at Nesle which if the uniforms had be changed to blazers and boaters would have shown a typical Edwardian Sunday afternoon anywhere in Europe.  

The house was his home for 40 years and offers us an insight into the material gains of a hugely important and successful artist’ existence.  He would paint to order for his equestrian clients who required a finer touch, less loose and a more naturalistic touch than the war paintings.  You can also see his studio, which he transported from his previous house.  Again, like the home it feels as if he has just popped out and unfinished canvases and paints are in use.  Also of note is a fine cast of a sculpture of a man on horseback.  The museum holds over 650 oils and 4,000 paper works with around 150 on display at any one time.

photo of the studio of Alfred Munnings
Sir Alfred Munnings Studio at Castle House image: © Neil Hennessy-Vass

This is a fascinating and well-curated museum providing the viewer with the vast spectrum of Munnings work and importantly showing the journey he undertook through life.  The early sketches and satirical work are particularly good and offer a balance to the more somber war pieces.    


Behind the lines: Alfred Munnings, War Artist, 1918

Showing until: 3 November 2019

The Munnings Art Museum, Castle Hill, Dedham, Colchester, Essex, CO7 6AZ


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