Alfred J. Munnings at Brandywine Museum

The high, the mighty and the mounted


    The English horse painter Alfred J. Munnings (1878-1959) was a craftsman sui generis, approaching– given his uncanny ability to meld early 20th-Century Impressionism with latter-century representational art— sui genius.    

    Through the period of his greatest output, up to the mid-1950s, Munnings was arguably, in the field of Anglo-American sporting art, the best of the lot. Other painters in that group, like the Englishman Snaffles (Charlie Johnson Payne) and the American Paul Brown, were wonderful artists. But the works of Munnings never dipped into caricature or illustration, which was often the hallmark of these and even lesser artists. (Works by Frank B. Hoffman, who explored another genre— the art of the American West— were the obvious exception).

    Thanks to the late collector/philanthropist Paul Mellon, Munnings’s works have long been accessible at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, the National Sporting Museum in Middleburg, Va., and the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts, not to mention Munnings’s eponymous museum in Dedham, England. But these holdings pale beside a new exhibit of more than 60 Munnings works, from a prodigious late 19th-Century to early 20th-century oeuvre, currently at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford.

    True, many of Munnings's better-known pieces (of the Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor; or Paul Mellon on his horse Dublin, for example) aren't in this show. But the exhibit makes up for it with its breath and comprehensiveness— from wistful gypsy pastorals and languid, homey scenes (like that in the iconic The Arbour) to the apogee of Munnings's career as portraitist of the high, the mighty and the mounted.

Those very private Chester County collectors

    The show, from modest pencil-and-ink-on-paper sketches to masterworks in oil on canvas, draws exclusively from little-known Munnings stashes in the hands of private collectors (almost exclusively anonymous) secluded within the Brandywine horse country of Chester County. Herein lies the extraordinary provenance of the exhibit: rarely (if ever) publicly seen pictures by an artist who is often ranked (though perhaps too generously) as the modern-day heir to George Stubbs, the great 18th-Century English horse painter.

    The show's curator, Audrey Lewis, says many of the works in the local collection have traveled before, but the Brandywine's retrospective is the first that probes the collection to its fullest depth. Even with the missing blockbusters, I reckon that the Brandywine exhibit will be noted as one of the most significant shows of Munnings in recent memory.

Look very closely

    Munnings’ pictures are often viewed best up-close. That's all right: They can take it. Look closely at the horse paintings from the end of his life: The foregrounds are representational, yet the facial qualities of his high-falutin' subjects are captured in almost camera-like clarity. Then scan back— his backgrounds are often mere squiggles.

    Get in even closer, and let your eyes drop to the spit-polished hunt and field boots of Munnings’s mounted foxhunters. Another like artist might arrange a pallet in black to expose the leather's shine, but Munnings draws curlicues in white on the otherwise black surface of the boots. The result? A gleam that almost squints the eye.

    A modernist touch? Perhaps, though Munnings himself disdainfully rejected any notion that his work embodied any such qualities. (Modern, in his lexicon, was a fighting word.) Chip away at the depiction of a horse, any horse. Then put on your X-ray glasses, and you’ll see why. Under the flesh of a Munnings steed is a Stubbs anatomy. Munnings learned his lessons well.

    Still, no less a connoisseur than Paul Mellon alluded to Munnings's “stylistic duality.” Munnings, Mellon said, evinces, principally in his smaller works, a “freer hand” than what you’ll find in his larger, formal pieces. Munnings’s studies and sketches were often those most favored by Mellon, who— in a feverish pitch combining artistic insight, a massive fortune and eleemosynary enlightenment— subsequently accumulated and then gave away a vast array of the artist's works.

Let’s not talk about money

    Less visible, all the while, was the quiet acquisition— and certainly on a less grand scale— of the same artist's works by Chester County's landed, equestrian gentry. How quiet can this kind of wealth be? A number of years ago, after a day of hill-topping, I was led by my host through a small, dark hall, while he proffered a drink. On my left was a Munnings. A small one, to be sure. I didn't say a word.

    Of course, no word is forthcoming about the value of the Chester County patrimony, either. This is, no doubt, one reason that the owners of the exhibit's paintings prefer to remain anonymous. (Insurance and theft are always a bother).

    And we're talking big money. One of Munnings's larger, better-known canvasses can fetch seven figures. In pounds. (That is, of course, if you can find one). The first version of Gone to the Cliff (circa 1913) was appraised by Sotheby's at about $300,000 about a decade ago. A later version (circa 1915) is displayed at the Brandywine. Do the math. (According to Sotheby's, this painting was— is?— owned by a Unionville resident.)

    One family that isn't shy about its contributions are the Strawbridges. Two Strawbridge pictures figure prominently in this show. One is a portrait of Robert Early Strawbridge (1870-1963) as a huntsman, painted in England when Strawbridge, a friend of the Prince of Wales, was master of the Cottesmore Hunt. (Back home in Philadelphia, I suppose, no one complained that he wasn't at his day job, minding shop at Strawbridge & Clothier). The other picture— proving that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree— is of Robert E. Strawbridge, Jr. (1897-1986), a legendary nine-goal polo player. (This latter picture was lent by Robert E. Strawbridge III, who last I knew was living in Wyoming as an “investor”).

Dismissed as a ‘society painter’

    These pieces, like many others in the show, were commissioned. In 1924, Munnings undertook a six-month visit to the U.S., or more accurately one version of the U.S.: Long Island, New York, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. The result was a slew of portraits of prominent patrons, and this, eventually, became the— now, thankfully, discarded— knock on Munnings: He was dismissed as a mere “society painter.” A John Singer Sargent, say, but on horseback. Munnings couldn't be so quickly debunked, nor devolved.

    On one hand, Munnings fit in quite nicely with his wealthy clients: After all, he himself was an effete toff, married to an avid foxhunter; who became the rich squire of an Essex horse farm. (Though he was a long-distance rider who described the horse as “one of greater miracles of nature,” I've never actually seen an image, painting or photograph of Munnings on horseback). His first wife’s suicide two years into their marriage (after an earlier, unsuccessful suicide attempt during their honeymoon!) seemed to leave no impact to figure in his later life or work. At the end of the day, Munnings could be mordantly nostalgic as long as his breeches were lined with sterling.

Falling in between the niches

    The Brandywine show is important, too, in that it's the first time in recent memory whereby Philadelphians will get to see Munnings on their home turf. According to Brandywine's Lewis, the Philadelphia Museum of Art owns 11 Munnings, mostly early works— and all are in storage. Something, ahem, about Munnings not quite fitting in with curatorial jargon, “falling in between” modern and contemporary niches, she said.

    Munnings, himself, wouldn't have had much patience with such dialectical shilly-shallying. If anyone had ever asked him (and certainly no one did), his work would now be hanging in the museum's British galleries— not too far from Stubbs's pictures.

    Kudos to Lewis for her brilliant orchestration of this exhibit. Juggling the interests of the many lenders couldn't have been an easy task. Lewis has also created— and this can't be said enough— a coherent, informative time-line and narrative in mounting the pieces. Thankfully, no Barnes-style gimcrackery.

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