Books: Munnings brought to life
PUBLISHED: 13:03 15 July 2014 | UPDATED: 13:03 15 July 2014
Louise Denyer reviews Summer in February, the book before the film of Air Alfred Munnings’ early life
Long before I was aware that Sir Alfred Munnings was one of the greatest artists of his era, I simply knew him as the Suffolk painter who lived opposite my grandmother when she worked as a nursery maid for a Dedham family in the late 1920s.
By the time he and his second wife, Violet McBride, moved to Castle House – now a museum dedicated to showcasing his life and housing a small collection of his work – Munnings had already become a prolific, gifted and well-regarded artist. I can’t help wondering what his neighbours thought of this slightly unconventional gentleman as they passed by his house each day.
It was this family connection that piqued my interest last year when I heard a film had been made about his early life. This homage was based on the book Summer in February by Jonathan Smith.
This is a subtle and evocative novel set during the days of a golden age that was soon to be shattered by the First World War and centres on the story of a tragic love triangle. In the screen version Munnings is played by Dominic Cooper, and his brooding, charismatic portrayal attempts to delve into the heart of a man who was complex and conflicted in many ways.
Born in Mendham on the Suffolk/Norfolk border in 1878, Munnings was the son of an unassuming miller. After leaving school at 14 he worked at a local printers and attended the Norwich School of Art in his spare time. When his apprenticeship ended he became a full-time painter and at the age of 21 he exhibited two of his works at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
In 1944, Munnings succeeded to the prestigious position of President of the Royal Academy of Arts. Summer in February begins in 1949 as he gives a final address to his fellow members before stepping down from the post.
This speech became notorious because of the way in which Munnings openly criticised the modern art movement, including painters such as Picasso and Dali, and because it was broadcasted live over the radio. Munnings believed in the more traditional artistic approach of his predecessors, such as John Constable. He was particularly renowned for paintings of rural scenes, horses and a bygone age of pre-war England. In 1911 he was drawn to a celebrated artists’ colony known as the Newlyn School, in a Cornish hideaway. The book brings to life a bohemia of relaxed morals and unadulterated creativity.
Other predominant themes in the novel include class, progress and the position of women in society at the turn of the 20th century. Munnings was deeply conscious of his working class background and his struggles to be accepted are frequently referred to in the book.
Smith’s research is based upon the sketchy diaries of Gilbert Evans, the third person in the triangular relationship, making this novel all the more fascinating. Despite a lack of personal detail, the author successfully brings to life a man who had previously just been an intangible figure in my family’s past.