'The Friesian Bull' 1920 (reworked 1920 - 47)
Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878 - 1959)
Oil on canvas, 95.3 x 129cm
Accession Number LL3915
This is a painting of a bull called Ongar Vic Klass, who the artist observed during a stay on the farm of his friends and patrons, Mr & Mrs James Putnam. The cow was one a select few imported into Britain in 1914. They formed the beginnings of today's population of Friesian cows that make up most of our dairy and beef herds. The Putnams had bought this particular bull for £2000, a huge sum in 1920.
Munnings claimed to have seen the bull being taken out one morning. He was so moved by the 'heavy, slow moving, black and white colossus' that he painted the canvas that afternoon. However, there exists a sketch for this painting (or a smaller version of it) and the model for the man leading the bull was Bert Smith, a handyman who lived, like Munnings, in Dedham. These two facts indicate that the painting did not have such a spontaneous beginning as the artist claimed.
Munnings did not succeed in selling this painting. Before it was exhibited at the Royal academy in 1947, some 27 years after it was made, he seems to have reworked it. More finish and detail were added to the herdsman and the foreground landscape. This may have reflected the artist's change of style between 1920 and 1947 towards greater polish and finish. However, it may also have been intended to get around the Royal Academy's ban on showing in its annual exhibitions paintings previously shown in London.
An extended study of 'The Friesian Bull' is also available online as part of our 'Artwork of the Month' series.