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The Painter Who Hated Picasso

Sporting artist Alfred Munnings loved horses, the English countryside and a good stiff drink. What he didn't like was modern art.

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In 1899, the 20-year-old artist was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, and the Royal Academy of Arts accepted two of his paintings for display. In one, Stranded, a little girl in a blue pinafore and a boy struggle to free their rowboat from reeds along a riverbank. In the other, Pike-fishing in January, a lone angler stands by a stream, his collar turned up.

It's hard to overstate the importance of the Royal Academy of Arts, the prestigious society established by King George III in 1768 to compete with the French salon. Sir Joshua Reynolds was appointed first president, with membership then restricted to 40 academicians and 20 associates. Munnings celebrated his academy acceptance by going into his beloved English countryside with a friend for a hunt race meeting. "I saw the thoroughbred horses and jockeys in bright silk colours going off down the course," he later wrote. "The peaceful School of Art, the smelly artists' room at Page Brothers faded away, and I began to live!"

Not much later, his apprenticeship over, Munnings began the perilous business of making a living as an artist. It was around this time that he suffered a disaster: while lifting a puppy over a thorn barrier, a branch rebounded and a thorn pierced his right eye, blinding it. He spent six months in a Norwich nursing home with both eyes bandaged and his savings evaporating. When the bandages at last came off, he had trouble with depth perception and gauging distances, problems that would bother him the rest of his life.

To ease his way back into solvency, Munnings' mentor and first patron, Tomkins, gave him commercial assignments. Munnings also unapologetically sought solace in the bottle. He describes, with genuine affection, a particularly lethal punch made from an 18th-century recipe consisting of rum, brandy, sherry, lemons, sugar and cloves, which was "never known to fail in making a night."

In 1904 he moved to Swainsthorpe, five miles south of Norwich, where he rented rooms and a studio in a farmhouse. There he assembled a band of ponies, horses and a donkey to serve as models. He bought a blue caravan with a stovepipe peeking out of the roof and a flatbed cart to carry a tent, a big umbrella, an easel, oil paints, canvases, turpentine, brushes, piles of paint rags, as well as watercolor materials.

He acquired the most picturesque of his human models—a youth nicknamed Shrimp. This young gypsy, "a wild, uncivilized primitive," also helped with the animals and baggage, but caused Munnings many a headache. Shrimp could neither read nor write; he drank too much; fell into minor scrapes with the law; and proved a cunning predator of farmers' daughters along the fields and down the tranquil lanes of Norfolk and Suffolk. But Shrimp was also indispensable. Munnings had him fit out with corduroy trousers, and a black waistcoat, yellow kerchief and soft cap. Thus caparisoned, he appears in many early Munnings works, including one in which Shrimp whips a thundering herd of ponies up and over a stream bank; Coming Through the Gap, as it is called, brought $2,274,000 at a Christie's auction of 21 works in June 2002 that brought more than $8.5 million.

The years from about 1900 to 1914, encompassing the Edwardian era, were among the artist's most creative. He produced wonderfully atmospheric pictures of farmers and villagers gossiping and otherwise enjoying themselves at horse fairs and country race meetings. These were his people; the Munnings clan had been living in these parts, close to the soil, since the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

In the summer of 1910, Munnings fell in love with Cornwall, in southwest England, with its stone-walled dairy farms, spectacular cliffs, pounding surf and cry of sea gulls. Late one December afternoon at a spot along the coast, the artist was out with the hunt when a fox eluded the hounds and bounded down a cliff. When the riders dismounted and peered below, they saw the fox crouching on a boulder at the edge of the booming surf. Munnings and the whipper-in (identified only as "Jack") made their way down the cliff. Jack cracked his whip at the fox, which plunged into the water with a terrified yelp and was immediately fighting for its life.

In his memoirs, Munnings recalls that the current repeatedly carried the rapidly tiring fox just short of the rocks, only to drag him back to sea. At what must have been the fox's last chance, a huge wave lifted him ashore. He shook himself, scrambled up the cliff and disappeared into a crevice. Jack started after him, but Munnings stopped him. The professional hunt staff was furious, but members of the hunt field cheered. Munnings' rendering of the episode, Gone to Cliff, fetched $2,426,000 at auction in June 2001.

Sir Alfred's last days in Cornwall were spent in the looming shadow of World War I. Munnings found some of the young artists there less interested in painting than partying, which they did Roman-style, sipping wine and nibbling grapes on floor cushions. The army turned Munnings down because of his blind eye, but he was able to wangle a civilian job outside of Reading in 1917, processing tens of thousands of Canadian horses en route to France—and often death. Nearly 500,000 British horses alone perished in World War I. After about a year, Munnings became an official war artist attached to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade under the command of British general J.E.B. "Jack" Seely.

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