The English Scene: Sir Alfred James Munnings’s Inspiration

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Launch Slideshow

In 1947, London’s Leicester Galleries launched The English Scene, an expansive exhibition of Sir Alfred James Munnings’s work. It would prove to be the most successful and profitable exhibition of Munnings’s career, demonstrating the artist’s prominent place in the art world. Spanning over four decades of the artist’s œuvre, many of the works from The English Scene will feature in Sotheby’s European Art sale this autumn. Inspired by England’s rural fields and racetracks, these paintings vividly depict the evolution of Munnings’s personal style. To discover more about the artist through the works in our upcoming auction, click ahead. –Seth Armitage

European Art
22 November | New York

The English Scene: Sir Alfred James Munnings’s Inspiration

  • The Plough in Early Spring. Estimate $400,000–600,000.
    Munnings’s childhood was spent in Mendham, East Anglia, on the verdant fields of the Waverney Valley. 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 paintings. Executed in 1901, The Plough in Early Spring’s depiction of a farmer with his Suffolk Punches working the fields also reveals Munnings’s appreciation of the era’s Realist and Naturalist painters, particularly Jules Bastien-Lepage, George Clausen, and Henry La Thangue. 

  • The Horse Fair. Estimate $125,000–175,000.
    Although Munnings’s watercolours, such as the present work , are relatively rare, the artist worked frequently in the medium from his art student days until the early 1900s. Munnings was a regular at the East Anglian Saturday horse fairs, not just as a buyer but also an observer. The fluidity and saturation of watercolour enabled Munnings to vividly capture the radiant and expressive characters he encountered in the English countryside.

  • The Falcon Inn. Estimate $250,000–350,000.
    Set outside The Falcon Inn, Costessey, this work features one of Munnings’s most famous models, a gypsy horse handler nicknamed Shrimp. Though the two often had a combative relationship, Shrimp prominently appeared in a number of the artist’s compositions beginning in 1908, assisting the artist on excursions through the Ringland Hills as he explored his naturalistic technique and vigorous, impressionistic style. 

  • The Second Set. Estimate $350,000–450,000.
    From his early childhood, Munnings had loved both horses (owning thirty-four through his lifetime) and the open air. Painted while the artist and his wife were at Withypool, Exmoor during World War II, the horses of The Second Set may be Rufus, Anarchist and Cherrybounce patiently waiting for exercising riders to return so they may have their turn. Munnings often painted these frieze-like compositions as they allowed for multiple “portraits” of his favourite horses, well-studied but not static in pose.

  • Lady Eleanor Smith’s Arab Stallion. Estimate $150,000–200,000.
    An important and profitable part of Munnings’s production was his commissioned portraits of horses belonging to influential friends and patrons, such as the one offered here . The artist met Lady Eleanor Smith while visiting her family’s Charlton manor to complete a portrait of her father, Lord Birkenhead. Munnings’s fondness for Lady Eleanor extends to the portrait of her striding Arab stallion, rendered with individuality and vitality. 

  • An Exmoor Farmer. Estimate $250,000–350,000.
    Painted soon after World War II, An Exmoor Farmer honours agrarian workers at a time when Britain’s food supplies were of critical importance. Munnings captures his subject of a farmer herding his flock with daring and deft brushstrokes, and the free, impressionistic use of colour seems to connect animal with the land. For Munnings, not only local farmers but also their sheep came to represent a way of life threatened by modern society. 

  • Study for Going to the Start. Estimate $200,000–300,000.
    After World War II, Munnings turned away from the formal portraits of prized horses that had been the heart of his work and concentrated on racing scenes, particularly those of his favorite racecourse, Newmarket, near his country house in Dedham. In addition to watching multiple races a day, the Jockey Club allowed Munnings to convert an old rubbing barn into a trackside studio to create works such as the present lot . The artist’s studies of “starts” were frequently exhibited and informed larger compositions. 

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