Epic: Brough Scott visits Castle House to give a talk about the life of his grandfather, General “Galloper Jack” Seely
10th July 2019
Under a marbled blue and grey sky, with horses at ease in the fields of Castle House, an attentive audience of eighty listened keenly to racing commentator Brough Scott tell the story of his grandfather Jack Seely and his horse Warrior; and of the artist who immortalised them both in 1918: Alfred Munnings.
The talk reminded us of the reach, and the breadth and the depth of Munnings’ life; of his work and of his connections. It suggested the fascinations we have not only with the artist himself but also with his family, his circle of friends and associates and the broader social forces pushing and pulling away in the background across a life that spanned eighty years. It also made us aware of the fact that the First World War is a conflict that is beginning to slip just around the corner of memory as the generations roll by.
Certainly, bringing the lens of another visiting speaker to Castle House has vividly contributed yet another dimension to our appreciation and examination of Munnings’ life but also to our understandings of the times in which he lived. The past is always echoing in the present. “Munnings has been full of myths and otherwise” observed Brough Scott early in his captivating talk and in this description he made the connection to Munnings’ longstanding and valued friendship with Jack Seely.
In the painting Major General The Right Honourable J. E. B. Seely (currently on display here at Castle House in our exhibition Behind The Lines) Munnings evoked the strength and endurance of the relationship between Seely and Warrior. Indeed, Brough took us quite movingly right through Warrior’s life, placing it in the context of the painting and in the story that continued far beyond it.
Brough deftly wove together humour, anecdote, family history, wider social history and an affecting sense of resonance. In sketching out something of Seely’s character, Brough noted that Seely was perhaps fearless rather than brave. Indeed, this distinction became acute when Brough noted that the portrait was undertaken just a mile from the front line in January 1918. For all of the steadfastness evoked by the image that Munnings painted, Brough also drew our attention to a sense of melancholy in both Warrior and Seely who had endured together almost four years of fighting.
A little later in the evening, as Brough took in the Behind the Lines exhibition,
he noted that the painting Horses of the 36th Company was suffused with that same melancholy feeling. He also made a keen connection between the rawness of Munnings’ pre-war paintings of gypsies in East Anglia and the rawness inherent in his paintings of men and horses at war.
For all of the specifics of time and place that Brough vividly conjured, perhaps the most powerful aspect of the talk, the part that resonated most, was that it told a story about the mutual sensitivity between humans and horses and how this in turn manifests itself in a powerful sense of devotion. Seely recognised this powerful connection and Munnings did, too. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that this devotional spirit towards the horse is what emanates from so many of Munnings’ paintings.
Towards the end of the event one of the longstanding stewards at Castle House shared a memory that had been prompted by the talk. A lifelong local resident, he recalled his father’s memory of how farmers at Ardleigh railway station had cried as they watched their farm horses loaded onto the trains to be taken far from home to the battlefields of France. “They were saying goodbye to their friends, weren’t they?” the steward asserted.