Alfred James Munnings was born in England on October 8, 1878. He was the second son of John Munnings, a miller. Munnings left school at the age of 14 for a six-year apprenticeship with a firm of lithographers in Norwich. By day he excelled as a lithographic draughtsman. He studied painting at night. Although Munnings was offered a job after finishing his lithographers’ apprenticeship, he turned it down. Instead, he bought a carpenters shop and converted it into an artist studio. He supported himself through freelance poster work and the occasional sale of paintings. Within months of this decision, he tragically lost his right eye in an accident. However, the loss did not affect his determination to paint. In his autobiography, Munnings wrote of his difficulties. “I wasn’t allowed to use my right eye for months and when I went to paint my brush either hit the canvas before I knew it was there or was not touching it. Mostly it was the latter and I found myself making strokes in the air nearer and nearer until I touched the painted surface…”
Munnings would travel with his man, Bob, a gypsy boy called Shrimp and seven or eight horses, ponies, a donkey, a blue painted caravan and a cart for his painting materials—all would be his models. They would travel until suitable country was found and then spend weeks painting in the open air.
In 1918, Munnings became an official war artist with the Canadian Calvary Brigade. His painting of General Jack Seely on his horse became a turning point in Munnings career. Munnings was able to skillfully capture both the rider’s portrait as well as the horse. This led to many commissions and brought him money and fame.
In 1920, Munnings married Violet McBride. Violet was confident of her husband’s greatness as an artist and tended to all his business matters and promotion.
Over the course of his long career, 289 of Alfred Munnings’ paintings hung in the Royal Academy Exhibitions. He was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1947 and was knighted that same year. In 1949, his last speech as President caused quite a stir. He publicly excoriated members for practicing modern art. The affront was exacerbated by the fact that Munnings speech was broadcast live to millions of people. He was always brutally honest in his opinions and this speech was no exception.
Munnings died in 1959. His wish was that his paintings be left to the Nation to promote ‘traditional art’. Lady Munnings established their home, “Castle House”, as a museum. The house, studio, 40 acres of land and all of Munnings paintings in Lady Munnings possession were put into a trust and are now open to the public.
Sir Alfred Munnings
An Appreciation of the Artist and a Selection of His Paintings
If a man sees right and can draw-every artist should draw, although fools say it does not matter today-he needs no photograph.