The path that lead to Sir Alfred Munnings' reputation as the most important equine artist of the 20th century began with a simple carriage ride with his father.
In his memoir, An Artists Life, the young lad described the thrill: I can see the mares pricked up ears in front of us, and the short, silky, silver mane in the breeze. I can hear the hooves on the road, the jingle of the silver-mounted harness and the sound of the wheels as we bowled along.
He was a painter of great flair with a tremendous sense of the subject he was painting. Today, his original paintings now fetch in excess of $1 million and can be found at some prestigious galleries and museums worldwide as well as forming the backbone of any serious private collection of sporting art.
The Brandywine Valley and the horse country of southern Chester County is home to numerous collectors of Munnings masterpieces. A new exhibition the Alfred J. Munnings from Regional Collections showcases more than 50 of those privately owned works that are on display at the Brandywine River Museum. The show runs now through Sept. 1.
Organized solely for the Brandywine River Museum, the exhibition demonstrates the artists superb skill and versatility. Munnings developed his own singular English-style of painting, depicting the British love affair with rural life and the horse, which were quickly disappearing.
Cochranvilles George Strawbridge Jr. has been a thoroughbred owner/breeder for 35 years. His brilliant colt Lucarno captured the St. Leger Stakes last fall, the oldest, longest and toughest English classic race.
He is one of 39 private collectors of Munnings works in the Brandywine Valley and southern Chester County.
My aunt gave me a Munnings painting when I was in my early twenties, recalled Strawbridge, 70. I was taken by his use of light, the terrific use of color. I enjoy his impressionism, the dramatic skies. His works convey the excitement at the start of a race. There is both a vivaciousness and tranquility.
I collected his work in bits and pieces. Early Munnings comprise most of my collection.
Munnings married his skills as a portrait artist with his talents as a landscape artist. Working primarily in oils with some watercolors, the artist often began with pencil sketches on a scrap of paper.
Beyond his sporting scenes, his paintings also included very personal interpretations of the English country fairs and gypsy camps, as well as impressionistic paintings and poetic portraits of ladies posed in sun-drenched gardens.
He would create repeated studies of the scene under various weather conditions so that he could better portray the transitory effects of light.
The earliest years of his career were spent roaming the English countryside, painting in open air, noted the Brandywine River Museums associate curator Audrey Lewis. He had an Impressionists attention to the effects of color and light on form. He would paint outside for long hours even in the harshest weather, and was known to bring three or four canvases to work on.
When he got back to the studio he would paint the scene on a much larger one. So you would have the same fascinating subject in different sizes.
The lavishly talented artists life began in relatively humble circumstances. In 1878 he was born into a millers family in the sleepy, rural village of Mengham on the Suffolk/Norwich border, 75 miles northeast of London.
At age 14, he left school to serve as an apprentice with a Norwich printer, designing and drawing advertising posters for six years.
In the evenings he took classes at the Norwich School of Art.
At age 20, Munnings attended art school in Paris where he was impressed with plein-air (open-air) naturalism. Combined with his introduction to the race course in 1899, it became the springboard for the themes of his pictures that have so much appeal.
When World War I broke out, Munnings tried to enlist twice, but was turned down due to the loss of sight in his right eye from an accident.
In early 1918 Munnings was named an official war artist, and was invited to paint the Canadian Cavalry Brigade in action in northern France. He was known for trekking across the war-torn landscape, his painting materials in tow.
As the conflict wound down, Munnings returned to London. His 45 war paintings the Canadian War memorials exhibition were showcased at one of the years most celebrated artistic events at the Royal Academy.
In 1919 the artist painted his first racehorse, Pothlyn, the winner of the Grand National, and became an Associate of the Royal Academy. He also met his future wife Violet McBride, a top show ring rider, and bought Castle House, Dedham.
Today, the Munnings Memorial Trust maintains a permanent exhibition of his pictures at the Georgian and Tudor style residence that sits in the lush Stour Valley.
He never dissolved form in his paintings, he still had clarity in his pictures, more so than Monet or Renoir, Lewis observed. Though some of his landscapes certainly remind you of Monet.
With his reputation on the rise, Munnings began a steady stream of commissioned portraits. Many of his patrons were the elite owners, breeders and trainers of the racing world that became his passion.
Despite the wealth and trappings that his sport art delivered, he remained an outstanding landscape painter, and the depiction of his own garden under snow is a masterpiece.
Munnings is recognized as the best painter of animals since George Stubbs. An English painter in the 18th century, Stubbs is known for the anatomical accuracy of his depictions of horses and other animals.
Over Munnings lifetime he was looked at as Stubbs equal, Lewis noted. He certainly portrayed more emotion and movement. I think you see more of a psychological personality than Stubbs offered.
In the twilight of his career Munnings left the lucrative commissioned portraits behind, concentrating on the inner workings of the horse world.
He spent his days studying and sketching the early morning gallops and the vibrancy of the racecourse itself.
In a tip of their hats, the race titans at legendary Newmarket race course allowed the artist to drive his car up to the starting post. He would draw and paint the power, grace and beauty of the thoroughbreds with their jockeys outfitted in colorful silks.
In his autobiography the artist recounts his unease with his realization that much that was beautiful in England was slipping away and how heart-wrenching it was to see the horse replaced by the machine.
Munnings spoke his mind; in particular his view of modern or abstract artists. He took aim at contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and maintained that few modern artists paid their dues or proved their mettle.
Worst, they never embraced the skill of drawing.
Munnings once was asked, what are pictures for
His pointed reply: To fill a mans soul with admiration and sheer joy, not bewilder and daze him.