About the artwork
The painting of horses rather than cattle is what Alfred Munnings is best remembered for. However, we see in this picture of a Freisian bull all the key features of a typical Munnings painting. There is a prize animal and a human figure in a broadly painted, open landscape. Long shadows spread across the foreground, there is bright sunlight as well as a wide and cloudy sky. The picture has been painted in a 'broad brush' manner, the thick and creamy paint perfectly describes the light and atmosphere of the location as well as the massive anatomy of the magnificent bull. The picture was almost certainly painted outdoors and completed in one session, although there is evidence to suggest that the foreground of the picture was reworked at a later date.
Munnings's work at Newlyn differed from that of other artists. He used local people as models but Cornwall simply provided a landscape background for his already established subject matter of hunting scenes, horse fares and race meetings. He bought horses and painted them grazing in fields, and even bought a black and white cow to use as a model.
Many years later when staying with patrons in Devon he saw their recently purchased Friesian bull called Ongar Vic Klaas. Munnings later wrote in his autobiography:
‘One morning we had the bull taken out. Seeing the heavy slow moving, black and white colossus led across the field was more than I could bear. The same afternoon, with the sun getting lower, I was at work on a large canvas. I still recall the picture of the placid docile beast passing by with low, ominous roaring - which was friendly talk - and slow, rhythmic movement, led by an attendant with a long pole fixed to a copper ring in its nose. Beyond, as a background, the simple English landscape - hedges, fields and hedgerow oaks, not yet hacked down.’
The bull was imported from Germany in 1914 and was eventually sold to Munnings's patrons for £2000. Friesian or Holstein cattle as they were then known provided a larger yield of milk and more beef than the traditional British breeds of cattle. Munnings did not sell the picture until many years later in 1947, although it was critically acclaimed when it was first exhibited in 1921. The Poet Laureate John Masefield was particularly impressed:
'…The man leads the bull by a twitch hooked to a ring in the bull's nose. It is a picture of the elements of man's life on earth: his conquering of the beasts by which he lives…'
Masefield was a friend and admirer of Munnings. He particularly admired his talent for light verse and ballad writing. Although Munnings usually recited his verse and sang his ballads in private to entertain his friends, many of the more printable ballads and poems were published in book form. Munnings had at an early age acquired the reputation of a 'character'. He was a heavy drinker and suffered from depression and gout. His first wife committed suicide. He was bad tempered, foul mouthed, anti-semitic and had an obsessive hatred for modern art. However he had a hugely successful career, by the 1920s he was selling pictures for as much as £1000.
Munnings was born in 1878 at Mendham in Suffolk, his father was a miller. He showed an early talent for drawing and on leaving school he was apprenticed to a firm of lithographic printers in Norwich. Lithography was the preferred method for colour printing, posters, illustrations and packaging. After a nine-hour day Munnings would attend evening classes at the art school for two hours. He won prizes both for his night school paintings and his daytime poster work, he was also taken on business trips to France, Germany and Holland by a wealthy client of the firm he worked for. During these trips he visited art galleries and developed an ambition to become an artist.
He became the youngest member of the Norfolk and Norwich Art Circle, a society that staged exhibitions twice a year. In 1898 he sold fifteen pictures through the Art Circle, ranging in price from £2.10s to £30. In 1899 he had two oil paintings accepted by the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. A month after the exhibition opened, his apprenticeship with the printing company ended. He refused their generous offer of a salary of £5 per week and with a copy of Stubbs’s 'Anatomy of the Horse' as his bible he began his life as a professional painter.
In the following year he lost the sight of his right eye in an accident but after recovery he continued to work on a series of oil paintings, busy rural scenes depicting country people and their horses in typical English settings. These pictures found a ready market and in 1904 he was able to spend several weeks in Paris painting at the Academy Julian. In Paris he discovered and was influenced by the work of Gericault, Degas, Bastien Lepage and Tissot.
Munnings was soon selling his paintings for as much as £200 and he was able to employ a groom to look after the horses that began to dominate his life. When he wasn't out hunting he was painting, the groom also acted as a model. At one point he employed two people to look after his horses and act as models. He toured Norfolk with a gypsy caravan and a cart, painting horses, ponies and people in a landscape setting. He eventually decided to go to Cornwall where there was a long established artist's colony at Newlyn near Penzance. Here artists painted out-doors, harbour scenes or interiors, using members of the local fishing community as models.
He was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1944 and was knighted in the same year. He resigned five years later preferring to spend time painting rather than on the many administrative responsibilities that had to be undertaken by a President of the Royal Academy. In the year of his resignation he caused an outcry with his speech at a Royal Academy banquet in which he furiously attacked the Arts Council, the Tate Gallery, and the Academy for, amongst other things, accepting those 'foolish daubers' Cezannne, Matisse and Picasso.
In the following year he made a great effort without success, to have Stanley Spencer prosecuted for obscenity. Munnings died in 1959, his ashes were laid in the crypt of St. Pauls Cathedral. Augustus John said:
'I think Munnings was greater than Stubbs. He made it move, had greater narrative quality and his groupings are better.'
Munnings's pictures continue to sell well. In 1984 a picture sold for £220,000, then a world record for a twentieth-century British painter.