Munnings, P.R.A., Sir Alfred James
Born in Mendham, Suffolk, Alfred Munnings was the son of a miller and farmer’s daughter. He showed talent for drawing at an early age which was developed when he became apprenticed to a firm of lithographers when only fourteen. At the same time, he began to study watercolour painting at the Norwich School of Art. In the early 1900′s he made several trips to Europe in the company of John Shaw Tomkins, an early patron. There he was greatly impressed with ‘plein-air’ naturalism, and this together with his first introduction to the racecourse in 1899, strongly influenced the subject matter for which he became famous.
While in Mendham, Munnings painted many scenes of country like, particularly horse fairs, and after returning in 1904 from a trip to Paris during which he had studied at the Academie Julian, he began travelling around East Anglia in a caravan, accompanied by several ponies. He first visited Cornwall in 1908, and lived at Chywoone Farm at the top of Paul Hill in Newlyn, later joining Harold and Laura Knight at Penzer House, and then moving to Lamorna, where he rented a studio and stable. He was an important addition to the Newlyn Circle, as much for his charismatic personality as for his artistic activities.
When the Great War broke out, Munnings was intent upon enlisting, despite having the use of only one eye, due to an accident in 1899. He finally found a position as an army trainer near Reading, later going to France as official war artist attached to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade.
1919 proved to be a major turning point in all aspects of his like; he painted his first racehorse the winner of the Grand National; was made an Associate of the Royal Academy; met Violet McBridge, whom he was later to marry, and brought Caste House, Dedham, where the Munnings Memorial Trust maintains a permanent collection of his pictures.
Munnings achieved a blend of academic tradition with a liberated use of colour introduced by Impressionism. During his career of over sixty years of painting, he won both fame and honour, with his election to the Presidency of the Royal Academy in 1944, a Knighthood the following year, and a personal award from the Sovereign in 1947, when he was created Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian.
Once the cornerstone of Walter Hutchinson’s impressive collection of sporting art, this painting by Sir Alfred J. Munnings is indisputably one of his masterpieces. For it is Munnings himself who refers to this painting as “the one picture I always desired to do”. Hutchinson, the famous publisher and printer, had a remarkable eye for great sporting pictures, and was the founder of the National Gallery of British Sports and Pastimes in 1949. There, Hutchinson displayed 618 works from his vast collection comprised of over 3000 paintings and prints. The collection and gallery were unfortunately dispersed upon Hutchinson’s untimely death in 1951.
The artist, in his memoirs, recounts his desire to create this picture: “…I stretched a six-foot canvas on a strong, pre-war stretcher- which fitted a fine frame I had in London. The canvas being stretched, I stained it with turps and golden ochre on a rag, the first evening by electric light. Next day, placing it across four chairs, I squared it out with pencil in scale to my smaller picture, a forty by thirty, already squared with billiard chalk. Then I began the one picture I always desired to do: Cheltenham Saddling Paddock, working from studies … which had been painted during the last three years with my remaining steeds. From then on, with the large canvas on an old-fashioned mahogany lean-to easel, the smaller picture on a low-pitched easel slightly on my left, sitting on a chair beneath a large skylight, I drew in the picture from left to right on the squares. I determined on this occasion to get everything in the picture exactly in the right place. Then, with a pointed sable and small, stiff hog, I drew it in with light red, afterwards thinly painting piece by piece, in monochrome, the sky in pale pinks, the hills in a warmer tone. This took little time; for I knew where everything was going. After allowing it to harden I began to paint from left to right, figures and horses growing day by day. Never was I so keen on a picture. Sending-in Day was in early April; it was then mid-February. Council meetings and presidential duties (Munnings was President of the Royal Academy) broke my concentration, but the picture gave little trouble; the other was in front of me to go by, with useful studies done out of doors as well, quite the best being of a man in a long, light coat standing with the jockey in the centre … Again I repeat, never was I so keen on a picture” (Munnings, 1952, p. 190).
The inauguration of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1924 and the Champion Hurdle in 1927 was a welcome boost for National Hunt racing at a time when the Grand National was still the only steeplechase of national importance. Mr. F.H. Cathcart of the Cheltenham Executive Committee considered the need for a steeplechase where the very best horses could meet on level terms, as opposed to the Grand National which is a handicap race. The idea was an immediate success and its popularity was no doubt helped by some legendary racehorses competing in these early years. The heroics of horses such as ‘Easter Hero’(double-winner of the Gold Cup) and ‘Golden Miller’(quadruple-winner), as well as one of Munnings’ favorite horses, ‘Brown Jack’ (winner of the Champion Hurdle, 1928), placed the March meeting at Cheltenham as a firm favorite with the racing public. New races were introduced to the meeting, which evolved slowly into what is now known as the Cheltenham Festival, the centerpiece of the National Hunt racing in England.
In this dynamic and brilliant picture, Munnings captures all of the nuances of the Cheltenham saddling area. At center, a trainer is seen giving last-minute instructions to his jockey, grooms hold their alert horses as the final checks of the saddles are being made; and in the background, jockeys have mounted the thoroughbreds which are eager to step away and join the parade to the start that has begun along the far rail. This scene is made all the more dramatic by the swirling sky above and the light that dances across the landscape. In the Saddling Paddock, March Meet, Cheltenham was engraved by Frost & Reed Ltd., Bristol and London, in 1952.
We are grateful to Graham Budd and Lorian Peralta-Ramos for their assistance in the cataloguing of this work, which will be included in Ms. Peralta-Ramos’ forthcoming Munnings catalogue raisonne.