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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On a bitter cold January morning in 1918, in a shell-blasted landscape on the Western Front, a few thousand yards from the German lines, Munnings painted a portrait of General Seely and Warrior, his charger. Later, when General Seely's unit was forced into a galloping retreat, the artist discovered what it was like to come under shellfire.

When he returned to his old life in London in the summer of 1918, it was like Murphy's Law turned on its head: everything that could go right professionally for the 40-year-old artist did go right. A pair of canny Scottish art dealers bought up most of his prewar paintings, helping to make him financially secure. He leased his first apartment and studio in London and in 1919, bought Castle House in Dedham, Suffolk, in the "Constable country" along the Suffolk-Essex border, famed for its big sky and gnarled oaks and so-called in tribute to the great landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837), whom Munnings hugely admired. His 1919 London exhibition of 45 paintings of the Canadians in France was a smashing success, and he was in even greater demand after Princess Alice commissioned him to paint her husband, the Earl of Athlone. Munnings posed him in uniform, aboard his horse against a faux battlefield on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

In 1920, Munnings married Violet McBride, a young widow and a top show ring rider, the daughter of a society riding instructor. Her social connections were doubtless helpful. She had a shrewd head for business and handled their finances skillfully. The Munnings were often apart for long stretches while he traveled and she hunted foxes.

At Munnings' favorite racetrack, historic Newmarket, he produced a series of paintings showing horses plunging, rearing and milling about at the start in what Edgar Degas reportedly once called a state of "naked tension."

He painted paddock scenes before the races and winner's circle scenes after, but in only a few instances did he portray the race itself. He loved horse racing—but lamented any exploitation of the animals. He went on shooting parties—but never carried a gun. His war paintings omitted any carnage.

From the 1920s until his death in 1959, Munnings could count upon a steady stream of rich commissions. From time to time, though, he threatened to quit work-for-hire and concentrate upon subjects of his own choosing, especially country life and landscapes. But his wife kept his hand to the easel, reminding him of their overhead which, at one point, included taking care of more than 30 horses, a country hunting cottage, their London properties, his London clubs and other manifestations of the good life.

Munnings was sometimes gone for months at a time living among the wealthiest people in the world. That life had its benefits. Munnings writes of sketching a mare and foal in an elm-shaded paddock at Anthony de Rothschild's Southcourt Stud near Leighton Buzzard in the early 1920s. In those days a groom appeared daily at teatime with a silver service, placing it on the grass beside the artist with a word of encouragement. "There, sir, that should help you to keep going."

But Munnings also found that life in the rarefied air among patrons could be lonely. "You are a guest but you are really not their friend," observes Peralta-Ramos. "You are a servant but you are not a servant. It's a very awkward situation." To his credit, Munnings did not try to soften his Suffolk accent or change his salty language or his raffish style of dress. He was who he was. But he became more opinionated as the years rolled by, which also aggravated his obsessions about Picasso and what one critic called the Spaniard's "queer distortions."

"If he didn't agree with you, he'd let you know it and was not going to smile politely and let you get away with a silly comment," says Peralta-Ramos. He attracted fierce supporters and equally avid detractors.

"As those artists whom he criticized became more popular, it was the critic, not the artists, who suffered," says Duncan Robinson of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. "He lost some battles. But he was a fighter, old Munnings."


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