Following its hugely popular 2019 exhibition, Behind the Lines: Alfred Munnings War Artist, 1918, The Munnings Art Museum
will in 2020 publish a book, based on a cache of letters between the artist and his wife, casting new light on his life as a much-in-demand painter.
As Behind the Lines evocatively revealed, Munnings portrayals of Canadian troops and their horses serving in France during World War One were received with such great acclaim - when they were originally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919 - that they opened up a career for him as an equestrian portraitist for wealthy, aristocratic and indeed, royal patrons.
Not only that, he quickly developed a reputation as an artist of international renown and this, in turn, earned him a knighthood and the Presidency of the Royal Academy.
Many of those early commissioned portraits painted after the 1919 exhibition required Munnings to travel great distances away from Castle House, his home in Dedham, a beautiful village in rural Essex.
It was during these extended times of absence, that he would regularly write letters to his wife, Violet, whom he married in 1920.
Now in the Museums own archive, the two hundred letters written by Sir Alfred to Violet over thirty years (from 1920 to the early 1950s), have been carefully catalogued and transcribed prior to publication in several illustrated volumes. The first of which will be released in early 2020 and will contain a selection of over fifty letters written between 1920 and 1922.
To complement the publication, the Museums annual changing display, of over two hundred paintings and drawings that chart the life and work of Sir Alfred across eight decades, will be interwoven with the original correspondence, preparatory sketches and finished works that relate to the letters.
While staying at the White Hart Hotel (now Inn) in Holybourne, near Alton in Hampshire he wrote to Violet on 26 September 1920, frustrated by the weather but charmed by his patrons butler and family. He also reveals his pleasure at negotiating some country butter from the nearby shop and what he planned to have for his lunch while working the following day:
The damdest [sic] day that ever was Raining pouring & Im home again have done nothing & sat in the Butlers [sic] cottage & had a blessed go at composition but it surely [added] must be fine tomorrow etc.
Dont [sic] care so long as Ive got you Oh The Butler [deleted] tells me he is 43 & his wife 36 their little boy is 3 - & daughter 6 months The boy is a knock out he sits on my knee & to see him on his high chair having dinner with his Mum is alright. Just been across to the shop & weedled ½ pound country butter out of them they hadnt any at first Such good stuff too Then Ill take a piece of cheese & a loaf down & eat a raw onion & do myself well - Quite alright if I have decent food.
Four days later, he again wrote to Violet, this time referring to a curious miscommunication between himself and Lady Torrington. He had agreed to paint her horse, Rich Gift, but was not best-pleased when she sent it and her groom to Munnings home, Castle House, without prior arrangement and whilst he was still painting in Hampshire:
Evening News had my portrait in & a paragraph on my letter to D. Mail - [Written vertically up left-hand side of the page and scribbled out]
Your express & other letter just here undoubtedly you are the best manager of things living Ill get back as soon as ever I can & do that horse Ly. Torrington seems alright. I like her letters & wires & as shes sent the horse to Ill see what can be done, but as I wrote about my doings here last night youll have understood it all by now Ill let you know about my getting back - & will think it out. Anyhow Ill motor up to London from here as I did last year
Thanks for all your letters & [deleted]
Much love AJ
These letters reveal much about Munnings himself, his personality, his opinions, interests and beliefs and his working practices, says Munnings Art Museum Director, Jenny Hand.
They also provide fascinating insights into the times in which he lived and, in particular, the aristocratic world of his patrons. These intensely personal missives home would also comment on the difficulties of painting and the loneliness of being away. He also wrote evocative descriptions of the particular countryside he found himself in, complete with quotes from literature plus observations on contemporary events and the many and varied people he met during these commissions. These remarkable documents serve to give us a series of unique insights into not only Munnings himself, but also into the times in which he lived.