Lot 65
  • 65

Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S.

400,000 - 600,000 USD
312,500 USD
bidding is closed


  • The Plough in Early Spring
  • signed A.J. Munnings and dated 1901 (lower left); inscribed Early Spring / Alfred J. Munnings / Mendsham / Harleston / Norfolk (on a label on the reverse)
  • oil on canvas
  • 24 x 26  1/4  inches


Mr. F. Southall, Esq., Norwich (by 1928)
Private Collection
Sale: Christie's, London, June 12, 1986, lot 179, illustrated
Richard Green, London
Acquired from the above


Norwich, Norwich Castle Museum, Loan collection of pictures illustrating the work of A.J. Munnings, R.A., August-September 1928 (as The Plough, lent by F. Southall, Esq. Norwich) 
Manchester, Athenaeum Gallery; York, York City Art Gallery; Bath, Victoria Art Gallery, Alfred Munnings 1878-1959, December 13, 1986-April 19, 1987, pp. 25, 91, no. 6, illustrated (lent by Richard Green)


Kenneth McConkey, George Clausen and the Picture of English Rural Life, Edinburgh, 2012, p. 110, illustrated fig. 175

Catalogue Note

Munnings’ childhood was spent in Mendham, East Anglia, on the verdant fields of the Waverny Valley farmed by his father (who was also the area’s miller). This early connection to the land and its people left a lasting impression, and in the early 1900s, Munnings sought out the area’s local residents as subjects for his painting.  In his autobiography, the artist recalled the scene and scent of hay-cutting while “on the meadows men with horses harrowing and rolling, moving slowly across and back; making wide, velvety tracks on the sunlit grass” (Sir Alfred Munnings, An Artist’s Life, London, 1950, p. 35). This vivid memory informs the present work, with its ploughman, feet braced firmly against the earth, shifting the blade at an angle; as his two draught horses methodically pace forward, the blue-green grasses are turned under, revealing rich brown earth. The massive and majestic animals, Suffolk Punches, awed the artist from an early age. During visits to his grandparents’ estate of Walsham Hall, he “could never see enough of the carthorses,” explaining “I adored them, and can yet describe my favourites” (Munnings, p. 22).

Beyond its biographical associations, 1901’s The Plough in Early Spring reveals Munnings’ appreciation of the era’s realist and naturalist painters, particularly France’s Jules Bastien-Lepage and his British followers George Clausen and Henry La Thangue. Through the late nineteenth century, Clausen’s portraits of ploughboys and expansive compositions of fieldworkers were recognized for their accurate, personally observed depictions of “ordinary” life (fig. 1.).  La Thangue’s compositions took a similar, if at times more symbolic, approach.  As La Thangue himself  pointed out to Munnings, The Last Furrow (1895, fig. 2), which depicts an elderly ploughman collapsed in his furrowed field, could be read as an allegory of a way of life overtaken by urban industrialization. While The Plough in Early Spring’s subject and compositional arrangement bears a very close resemblance to La Thangue’s, its inclusion of farm animals and village beyond suggest an earlier period of rural painting (McConkey, p. 110). At the same time, Munnings’ use of bold blocks of color, in the ploughman’s dark coat against the vibrant grass, red-orange roofed cottages and a greying sky, and variation in brushwork, reveal his admiration of the French Impressionists, notably Edgar Degas and Henri Fantin Latour— and an impending development in his style in later years. Yet, The Plough in Early Spring avoids what Lionel Lindsay called the “illusory moment” of the Impressionists in favor of the artist’s  “sense of love and form, built of live colours—yellow and orange, scarlet, purple, and green— they must be placed with a fine, harmonious precision, or the whole atmospheric balance of the picture will be upset… Munnings does this time and again with unerring tact ” (Lionel Lindsay, A. J. Munnings, R. A. pictures of horses and English life, London 1939, p. 18).  Such tact allows The Plough in Early Spring to be a masterful work of rustic naturalism, a foreshadowing of Munnings mature style, and an honest depiction of the land and way of life that shaped him.