New exhibition brings Alfred Munnings’ WWI paintings to his Dedham home
PUBLISHED: 10:50 27 March 2019
A major exhibition brings Alfred Munnings’ 1918 paintings of soldiers on the Western Front to his former Dedham home | Words: Georgie Russell
When are you going to bring the Canadian paintings back?” Jenny Hands was asked, repeatedly, by her team of stewards, when she first assumed the role of director at The Munnings Art Museum in Dedham, back in 2013.
The pictures they referred to were those painted by Sir Alfred Munnings, while balancing on duck boards in thick mud on the Western Front.
The collection, completed over six months in 1918, went on to secure and accelerate the equestrian artist’s, now, internationally acclaimed career. Yet, for the last 100 years, the collection has been at the Canadian War Museum, in Ottowa, often in storage.
This month, however, Jenny’s stewards are finally getting their wish. All 41 of Sir Alfred’s wartime paintings are returning to his former home, Castle House in Dedham, now The Munnings Art Museum. And for the first time in art history, the canvasses are being reunited with the original sketchbooks that inspired them.
It is quite a moment for the museum’s director. “We have known about this body of work for so long,” says Jenny. “It is tremendously exciting that they are coming home to the land that made him.”
Sir Alfred Munnings was an East Anglian. He was born into a miller’s family at Mendham in Suffolk in 1878 and carried out his early training at the Norwich School of Art. By 1914, however, he had moved to Cornwall to work alongside the Newlyn School of artists, a chapter of his life that ended in tragedy.
Four days before the outbreak of the First World War, his first wife, Florence, committed suicide. And as other young men around him were being handed uniforms and a pass to the front, Alfred failed to enlist, having lost the sight in one eye as a child.
But in 1918, his fortunes changed. While working for the Army in Reading, checking potential war horses for disease, he caught the eye of an art critic, Paul Konody. Konody had been engaged by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to find artists to record the Canadian war effort and he offered Munnings a commission.
Armed only with canvasses, stretchers, paper and a box of water colours, oils and brushes, Munnings headed out to France as an embed with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. Here he painted portraits, most famously of Major-General The Right Honourable J E B Seely on his horse, Warrior, and of Captain Prince Antoine of Orleans on Braganza.
His sitters, naturally, were short of time so it was a small mercy that Munnings could work at pace. “Munnings was a very prolific artist, he was fast,” explains Jenny. “The body of work he completed was quite extraordinary compared to what other artists brought home.”
His speed enabled him to win round sceptical soldiers, whose initial reluctance to participate soon dwindled when they saw their plight take shape before their eyes on Munnings’ easel. Brigadier General Seely wrote later that all the Canadians under his command “loved the man”.
Recording the guts and gore of war was not convention at the time. Only one painting in the collection records a battle scene. But in The Charge Of Flowerdew’s Squadron, Munnings is imagining what it was like for 33-year-old Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew and his squadron of 75, riding down on 300 Germans, rather than witnessing it firsthand.
The majority of Munnings’ war paintings work to encapsulate the strange beauty and apparent quietude of scenes, often where the war had wrought its damage and moved onwards, such as in Ruined Chateau At Ennermain, Near Athies.
He offers an artist’s view of war and, as you stand back and look at the paintings, his vantage point is eerily tangible. You almost feel like you are standing in Munnings’ shoes, or hovering at his easel. “The painterly quality of the paintings will delight,” says Jenny.
By April, 1918, the German offensive was mounting and Munnings was encouraged to retreat and work alongside companies of the Canadian Forestry Corps in Normandy instead.
Theirs was a logistical operation, felling and transporting the staggering amount of wood required to build trenches, railway lines, underground dugouts and pathways across no man’s land.
Here, Munnings was witnessing scenes he understood. The lumberjacks from Canada weren’t dissimilar to the labourers he grew up with on the banks of the River Waveney.
He painted them with empathy, capturing the human effort involved in the heavy physical work, using an extensive palette of colours and bold brushstrokes to add depth and light.
He captures quieter, stiller moments too, focusing on the relationship between the men and their horses, at rest, on the move and watering by the river. “These lumbermen were grand fellows,” Munnings later wrote.
For Munnings, being a war artist wasn’t about the money. In fact he said he’d happily have painted the whole collection for free. For him, the soldiers and horses were his sitters - and painting them in such a unique environment was an opportunity.
However, he did make money from his time in France. He sold the collection to the Canadian Government and earned himself some prestigious commissions as a result. “It was noticed very quickly how good the war paintings were,” says Jenny, “Munnings was given his own section in the Canadian War Memorials exhibition at the Royal Academy. There was instantaneous recognition of the quality.”
1919 went on to be the year that changed Munnings’ life. He displayed his Cornwall works at the Royal Academy summer show, bought Castle House in Dedham, (“The house of my dreams”) and met Violet McBride, his second wife who had a huge influence on his career.
“It is definitely fair to say,” says Jenny, “that if he hadn’t been given that commission to go out to war, success wouldn’t have come so soon.”
This month, Jenny and her team, along with the Canadian War Museum and the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation, are finally bringing the Canada paintings home.
“Munnings fans will see development from early works, and roots of later works,” says Jenny. “We are all looking forward to it immensely.”
Behind the Lines:
Alfred Munnings, War Artist, 1918
March 23 - November 3
Celebrated as one of England’s finest equestrian painters, Sir Alfred Munnings forged much of his early reputation as a result of his war artist commission in France during 1918.
Serving in eastern France with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 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, 41 wartime paintings by Munnings are returning together to the United Kingdom on tour from the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
In this once-in-a-lifetime display at his former home in Dedham, the finished paintings will be shown side by side with the surviving sketchbooks that inspired them and owned by the museum.
This is the first time these sketchbooks have been on public display together with the finished pictures, and will provide a unique view of life ‘behind the lines’.
The Munnings Art Museum
Castle Hill, Dedham