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 1932, philanthropist Paul Mellon asked Munnings to paint him astride his favorite hunter, Dublin, in Gloucestershire. In his Reflections in a Silver Spoon, Mellon recalls getting a photograph of the painting before the real thing arrived. "I thought the bushy willow tree to the left was a little disturbing and wrote to Munnings, asking whether he could do something to make it slightly less prominent," Mellon recalled. "Sometime later, I got a blast back saying in the first place, the tree wasn't a willow, it was a pollarded oak, and second, he had no intention of changing anything whatsoever. So that was that."

Neither man could have imagined that Mellon, then 25, would one day become one of the greatest supporters of sporting art and the biggest collector of Munnings' work.

From those in love with horses, Sir Alfred's work often elicits strong emotions. After World War I, for example, he visited General Seely (by then, Lord Mottistone) at his farm on the Isle of Wight and again sketched the general's war horse. In My Horse, Warrior, below the sketch, the general wrote: "Here is Warrior's head as drawn by my friend Munnings. The likeness is so striking, the expression so true, that I confess it moves me deeply. It is Warrior that I see, the real Warrior with his white star and his fearless eye."

After lunching one day at Chartwell with Winston Churchill, Munnings encouraged the artistic efforts of England's most famous amateur and saw to it that the Royal Academy elected him a "member in extraordinary." Sir Winston, in turn, encouraged Sir Alfred to resume the academy's annual banquets at Burlington House, which had been suspended since the war. Though Munnings wanted to quit the presidency—he found it irksome and time-consuming—he agreed to stay on through 1949 and to hold a farewell banquet. Both men were determined that Munnings' swan song would not be a stuffy affair.

BBC Radio would cover the event. Munnings borrowed the toastmaster from the office of the Lord Mayor of London, and signed up the Royal Artillery band to play "The Boys of the Old Brigade." The distinguished white tie assemblage included Viscount Montgomery of Alamein; the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the King's pictures, later to be convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. Munnings despised Blunt, for he had once heard him say that Picasso was a greater painter than Sir Joshua Reynolds.

By the time it was Munnings' turn to speak, he had apparently consumed a great deal of sherry, followed by several toasts with champagne. Soon he was having trouble getting past words like"“innumerable," but his message was clear and heartfelt. "I find myself a president of a body of men who are what I call shilly-shallying. They feel there is something in this so-called modern art....Well, I myself would rather have—excuse me, my Lord Archbishop—a damned bad failure, a bad, muddy old picture where somebody has set down what they have seen than all this affected juggling....Not so long ago I spoke in this room to the students, and....I said to those students, 'if you paint a tree, for God's sake try and make it look like a tree, and if you paint a sky, try and make it look like a sky....'"

He might as well have rolled a grenade down the banquet table. There were shouts of "hear, hear," angry interruptions and outbursts of laughter. Munnings bristled: "As I am president and have the right of the chair, allow me to speak. I shall not be here next year, thank God!"

The next morning, phone calls and cables poured into the academy and the BBC, followed by hundreds of letters, the great majority of which, Munnings insisted, supported him. Cartoonists had fun with the war of brush and palette. David Low, of the Evening Standard, depicted Munnings leading a cavalry charge up the steps of the Tate Gallery. The caption read: "General Munnings's lowbrow cavalry charges the Tate Gallery. Picasso taken prisoner! Matisse severely wounded!"

"Munnings stood for everything that was reactionary in that speech when, in fact, he wasn't as reactionary as perhaps he thought he was," says Malcolm Cormack, the former Paul Mellon Curator of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. "He owed a great deal to Impressionism. You can't think of Munnings without seeing those wonderful impressionist landscapes that he did."

Toward the end of his life, Sir Alfred's left eye was beginning to fail him along with his general health. He died in his sleep in the early hours of July 17, 1959. He was 80. His ashes were placed in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral beside those of John Constable. Poet John Masefield's inscription on Sir Alfred's memorial plaque reads:


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