"Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, Your Graces, My Lords and Gentlemen, pray silence for the President of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Alfred Munnings." When Sir Alfred rose to address Britain's most influential arbiters of art that evening in 1949, he had reached the pinnacle of an amazing career, having risen from obscure provincial artist to general acceptance as one of the leading painters of his generation—and by far its most rambunctious.
He had become wealthy and famous, lionized on both sides of the Atlantic by Rothschilds and Astors and members of the royal family. His friends included Sir Winston Churchill, poet laureate John Masefield, high-ranking military, racehorse owners, trainers, masters of foxhounds and "staunch farmers of the right breed," as he put it.
His legacy endures. His early paintings of gypsy encampments, wild ponies and county fairs in long ago East Anglia are enjoying brisk sales, as are his later equestrian portraits and scenes of Thoroughbred racing at Newmarket, Epsom and the like. Even though sporting art has often been treated with condescension by the art establishment, his works fetch prices in the millions, right up there with those of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and David Hockney. "There has been an incredible flowering of his followers as well as his prices," says Peter L. Villa, a Manhattan art dealer and former Christie's executive. "He has always been the leading light of English sporting art, a painter of great flair with a tremendous sense of the subject he was painting."
But Munnings' life was not all strawberries and clotted cream. Born the second of four sons to a miller in 1878, he lost the sight of his right eye just before his 21st birthday; from about age 30, gout had him in its grip, and his first wife tried to commit suicide on their honeymoon only to succeed two years later in 1914.
And in his autobiography, Munnings recounts the "chill" he felt when it dawned on him that "much that was beautiful in England was slipping away," a transition he lovingly documented. "He was completely besotted with the countryside of England and hated to see it change," says Munnings expert Lorian Peralta-Ramos. "It was heart-wrenching for him to see the horse replaced by the machine."
Of a piece with his distress over the loss of Arcadia was his obsessive hatred of modern art—with the exception of Impressionism, which he embraced in many of his paintings. He thoroughly enjoyed taking potshots at contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and he felt that few modern artists had paid their dues or even learned to draw.
"What are pictures for?" he asked. "To fill a man's soul with admiration and sheer joy, not to bewilder and daze him."
Munnings' life began in relatively humble circumstances, in the sleepy rural country along the Suffolk-Norfolk border, 75 miles northeast of London. At that time the horse was still central to humankind's existence. The animal had been celebrated in the brilliant equestrian paintings and lithographs of George Stubbs (1724-1806), whose work paved the way for Munnings. So too did the encouragement of his parents, who presented the boy with a toy horse at age 4. The artist would long remember its black mane and bobbing head, as he would his first pony—and every other horse he ever owned. In An Artist's Life, the first volume of Munnings' three-part memoir, he recalls a carriage ride with his father who shared his love of high-spirited horses: "It was then the grey mare. I can see her now as plainly as one of my own today. A fair-sized, well-bred mare, all quality and with a temperament. I can see those pricked-up ears in front of us and the short, silky, silver mane in the breeze. I hear her hooves on the road, the jingle of the silver-mounted harness and the sound of the wheels as we bowled along."
With his three brothers, young Alfred spent his days roaming the meadows and playing along the Waveney River. But this idyllic childhood came abruptly to an end at age 14, when his father bound him to a six-year apprenticeship to Page Brothers & Co., Ltd., lithographers in Norwich, 20 miles from the Munnings home in Mendham. After each ten-hour workday, Alfred would walk to the Norwich School of Art to study until 9 p.m. For a restless, energetic young man it was a grinding, often boring regimen, softened only by the occasional bottle of cheap wine and the volume of Tennyson he kept beneath his desk.
Still, Munnings thrived under the pressure of turning out imaginative advertising illustrations on short notice for such accounts as Colman’s Mustard, Waverley Cycles, and A. J. Caley & Son chocolate and cracker manufacturers. His work for Caley brought in so much business that John Shaw Tomkins, a company director, took Munnings under his wing.