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Sir Alfred Munnings, Artist, 1878-1959

Updated on October 6, 2016
Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron, AJ Munnings, 1916.  From the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art
Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron, AJ Munnings, 1916. From the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art | Source

Alfred Munnings, 1878-1959, rose from lowly beginnings to being a famous artist and President of the Royal Society. A book and film, Summer in February, unleashed a tragic secret buried in his past

Alfred Munnings:

1878: Alfred Munnings was born on 8 October 1878, in Mendham, Suffolk

1912: He married his first wife, Florence Carter-Wood at St George Hanover Square, an area that spans Middlesex and London.

1920: He married for the second time, to Violet McBride, a widow, (née Haines) in Chelsea, London.

1959: Alfred Munnings died on 17 July 1959 in Dedham, Essex, aged 80.

1971: Lady Violet Munnings died in Chelsea, aged about 85.

Alfred Munnings, born in October 1878, rose from lowly beginnings to being a famous artist and President of the Royal Society. As one of the Newlyn School of Artists, Alfred's work was well received and yet a dark secret was mostly hidden until after the death of a man from his past in Lamorna Cove.

Married twice, Alfred Munnings rarely mentioned his first wife in his three autobiographies written in the 1950s; he swept her existence under the carpet.

What was the huge secret that lay buried in Alfred's past?

Born in 1878, the second of four sons. At the age of 14 Munnings left school and started work with a local printer, designing and drawing advertising posters, where he stayed for the next six years. During this time he attended an art school part-time, at the end of his apprenticeship becoming a full-time painter.

In 1898, at the age of 20, Munnings lost the sight of one eye in an accident. Just one year later he had two paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibiti9on. By the time he was 30 he had gout.

Alfred Munnings painted his first wife, Florence, many times, but only kept one of her paintings: Two Lady Riders Under An Evening Sky

Married in 1912, his wife first wife, (Emily) Florence Carter-Wood, tried to commit suicide on their honeymoon. In 1914 she succeeded. Munnings never spoke of his wife after her suicide.

Munnings was originally known as a horse painter, having received a toy horse when he was aged 4 his life-long love of horses was started. Munnings remembered every horse he ever owned, so, in 1917 when he applied to join the army, but was deemed unfit to fight, he took a role looking after the army horses, the War Horses. During this period he painted many scenes of horses and war, even, at times, painting just a few yards from the Front Line.

Alfred Munnings wrote a 3-part memoir of his life, part one was called An Artist's Life. In these memoirs he glossed over this early part of his life, so his family were in the dark about what happened during these years.

Munnings Paintings

Munnings first love was horses, he painted many scenes with horses during the war.

He was also known for painting rural scenes, frequently of subjects such as Gypsies and horses. Many of his paintings depict the other members of the Lamorna Cove artists colony as they all, frequently, used each other as models. His wife, Florence, is in many of his paintings.

Munnings was a very popular painter between the war years. He mixed in wealthy circles and was often commissioned by horse owners to paint them and their horse.

In 1924 Munnings visited the USA, where he was highly sought after to paint welathy people with their horses.

During his lifetime he painted thousands of canvases and an original would cost many thousands of pounds. In 2002 one of his paintings, The Ford, was sold for £1.8million, exceeding the anticipated £500-800k set in the catalogue.

Felling a Tree in the Vosges, AJ Munnings.  From the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art
Felling a Tree in the Vosges, AJ Munnings. From the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art | Source

Retiring Speech as President of the Royal Academy

In later life, Munnings became President of the Royal Society in 1949, as Sir Alfred Munnings was retiring from his post as President of the Royal Academy he shocked the audience at the Annual Banquet when his speech changed into a savage attack on Modern Art. So shocking was it that people were rapidly turning on the live radio broadcast to hear it.

Munnings' famous speech attacked Modernism, describing Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse as “foolish daubers” who had corrupted art.

The infamous speech at the RA's annual dinner in 1949 can be heard in the film Summer in February, premiered in June 2013.

After the war, Munnings moved to Dedham, in Essex. He died on 17 July 1959 at home in his house at Dedham, where he'd lived since 1919. In 1962, his wife, Violet Munnings, turned their home into an Art Museum.

Where are the Most Munnings Paintings?

The largest public collection of Munnings paintings will be found at the Munnings Art Museum, in his former home in Dedham, Essex.

Other galleries will often have Munnings exhibitions or collections, including the Penlee House Art Gallery in Penzance, Cornwall holding a special exhibition throughout 2013 to coincide with the Summer in February film launch.

Coolmore Stud owner John Magnier, is probably the owner of the world's largest private collection of Munnings' paintings. It was John Magnier who paid £1.8million for just one of his canvases, The Fort, in 2002; he'd used two art agents to attend the auction and to buy as many of Munnings' paintings as possible, "at any price".

Second Wife: Violet McBride (nee Haines)

Violet was born in 1886 and was a widow when she married Alfred in 1920.

In 1961 a biography was written about Munnings and Laura Knight wrote to Violet to request that the author change the story so as to remove Munnings from being to blame for the suicide of Florence. In the letter Laura conveyed her knowledge and thoughts of Florence instability,and her cruelty towards her husband.

Violet Munnings was well-known in London for her pekinese. A book entitled Black Knight was written of the dog; the pekinese even attended the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II in 1947.

Lady Violet Munnings died in her Chelsea Home in October 1971

Alfred Munnings Art Museum Address:

Castle House,

Dedham, Colchester,

United Kingdom, CO7 6AZ

Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum

In 1962, three years after the death of Sir Alfred, his widow Violet Munnings handed over their house, over 600 paintings, some land and investments to the St Alfred Munnings Art Museum. It was what Alfred Munnings had wanted - for his estate and paintings to be left to the nation - so she'd started on the project after his death, having set up a Trust and raising funds.

The museum is at Castle House, Dedham, Colchester, United Kingdom, CO7 6AZ.

Summer in February: The Film

While Alfred was at Lamorna Cove and married to Florence, the local land agent was close to Florence and writing a diary of their friendship and events within the artist community. The diary lay buried in the private papers of Gilbert Evans, estate manager at Lamorna, until his family stumbled across it while clearing out his belongings.

What his son, Gordon Evans, read, of Gilbert and Florence, shocked them - they had no idea of their friendship, or of the existence of Florence. The diary was turned into a book, then a film - it covers the years 1912-1914, when Alfred, Florence and Gilbert met, lived and loved in Lamorna Cove - and the ulimate tragedy that befell them on the cusp of the Great War.

Sir Alfred James Munnings KCVO, PRA (8 October 1878 – 17 July 1959)


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    • cornwall_UK profile image

      cornwall_UK 4 years ago from Cornwall, UK

      Thanks for your comment Imogen

      Whether one is interested in art and Cornish artists, or have even heard of the artist colony at Lamorna Cove or Newlyn .... it all suddenly becomes exciting when you realise what unusual lives they lead in a few brief years in the area. How their lives were touched with tragedy, intrigue and love!

    • Imogen French profile image

      Imogen French 4 years ago from Southwest England

      What a fascinating article, I am always interested to know about the Cornish artists. I would like to see the film too, from what I have read here. Thanks for the info.