Great British Railway Journeys & inter-war artworks by Sir Alfred Munnings

Whilst the museum has been very quiet during lockdowns we have certainly been kept busy over the last year. This included filming with Michael Portillo last summer for his series Great British Railway Journeys. Our episode aired on Monday 3rd May 2021 on BBC2 at 6.30pm and focuses on artistic life in Dedham and the paintings of Alfred Munnings between the two World Wars. The episode is now available on BBC IPlayer.

Michael Portillo at The Munnings Art Museum

Throughout Monday 3rd May we also be posted more inter-war artworks by Sir Alfred Munnings, on our social media channels, with commentry from Dr Bill Teatheredge. These are included in this blog post below.

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Known in the inter war years for his commissioned portraits of racehorses Munnings would, in his spare time, paint for his own pleasure. Staying at the Rank’s stables at Druids Lodge, Salisbury, in order to paint their racehorses, Munnings depicts Mrs Rank relaxing by her pool. An unusual composition for Munnings it could be seen in art historical terms as between an Edward Hopper, before the war, and a David Hockney after.

Mrs J.V. Rank at Druid’s Lodge by the Swimming Pool
1940, Oil on canvas


Although Munnings probably learnt to sculpt while at the Norwich School of Art there are only two known commissioned works. The first was a bronze statue of Lieutenant Horner, in 1919, and this sculpture of the famous racehorse Brown Jack in 1935. Both works are superb in their detail and accuracy. Why exactly an internationally renowned painter would be asked to diverse into another difficult medium is not known. Brown Jack does however demonstrate Munnings supreme skill not only in depicting the equine but also as an all-round artist.

Brown Jack
1935, Bronze

The one thing Munnings loved to do was to sit by a river and paint. Here he depicts St. Mary’s Church, Dedham, on a beautiful summer’s day with the River Stour lazily flowing along. Munnings loved the countryside especially the Dedham Vale which he considered his arcadia. Conservation was very important to him so about the time Munnings painted this, and a whole series of similar works, he was made the first President of the newly formed Dedham Vale Society. Their work resulted in the Dedham Vale being designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. 

Barge on the Stour at Dedham
c1935, oil on canvas


This tender portrait of Munnings’ second wife Violet is set in the garden of Castle House, The Munnings Arts Museum. On a summer’s morning Violet seems oblivious of Munnings painting her as she sews. High tonal values of light set this work off with pastel yellow hues contrasting and blending with the green of the trees and blue of the flowers. The serenity of this work early in their marriage offsets the busy but loving times, as seen in Munnings’ letters to Violet, which would lead Munnings to become a Knight and President of the Royal Academy.

Violet, My Wife, in the Garden
c1920, oil on canvas

An unusual composition by Munnings takes us back to his early designs while he was working at Page Brothers lithographers at the end of the 19th century. This, however, is intended as a back-cloth for a Chelsea Arts Club ball. At one point the Chelsea Arts Club was a second home for Munnings until he was suspended for swearing. Between the wars Munnings enjoyed attending numerous London clubs including Winston Churchill’s exclusive The Other Club. 

Sun Worship: a back-cloth for the Chelsea Arts Ball
c1925, oil on canvas

Between the wars Violet and Munnings would regularly visit Exmoor. Munnings described that when he was there all he could do was ride his horse and paint. His subjects varied from wide desolate landscapes to scenes of rivers and Violet out riding. In paintings such as this one Munnings captures the very heart of the countryside as a farm worker uses traditional methods to thatch a stack. An admirer of Impressionism, which reflects very much in his own art, Munnings may have had Monet in his thoughts while making this study.  

Thatching an Oat stack with rushes, Exmoor
1938, oil on board