The Bungay Races

In 1899, Alfred Munnings has his first pictures accepted at the Royal Academy (summer exhibition)…

“NOW, it happened that this Wernham was to share the greatest day of my life. On that stupendous day, just before eight o’clock, as I was about to rise, he tapped at my bedroom door and walked in with two letters in his hand,
saying, “Here are two notices from the Academy; behold the red letters on the back ! One to say you have something hung, the other that something is out! ”

Knowing nothing, and being innocent of the ways of that great unknown institution, I little dreamt that these two letters lay waiting on the breakfast table. Wernham who was always down first being a Post Office official, knew at once their meaning and, guessing what I had done and bringing me those
letters, he not only prepared me for the contents, but shared in the tremendous excitement when I opened them and found I had two in and one out !

Could such a thing be possible? Here was I, a raw, simple, provincial youth, knowing nothing of the great Royal Academy, receiving on this Thursday before the Varnishing Day which was without a doubt on the following Monday a surprise and a thrill such as I have never since experienced, or ever will again. When I became an A.R.A., or even President, I did not feel the
same overwhelming joy that was mine that morning.

Pike Fishing, 1898

Stranded, 1898

As I recovered my balance and began to dress, my good friend said, “On such an occasion as this you must not go to business: this is the first day of Bungay Races, and you are coming with me.”

Here was a poser ! Nobody had telephones then. I hesitated, then suddenly decided to go, for what did anything matter now that I had two pictures hung in the Royal Academy? And so we got into a first-class carriage of the race train (my first luxury journey), and soon found ourselves walking with a crowd to the common and the stands.

My first real race-meeting! There were picturesque gypsies: two tall, handsome sisters, the Grays, with their mother, Kiomi, whom I afterwards knew, and who was once model to Frederick Sandys. She could talk of “Mr. Rossetti” and “Mr. Millais” and others by the hour, and told how she posed to Sandys for his picture of “The Prophetess”, keeping her eyes fixed forward
hours on one point as he drew. The tall daughters were slim, brown, dark and magnificent in black silk, large black feathered hats and gold earrings. Nelly, the elder, had the best caravan all green and gold that I ever saw.

But I must keep to the meeting. Wernham, wearing a brown bowler, pepper-and-salt covert coat, race-glasses and white gardenia, went off to bet on the first race, leaving me to go where I pleased, with a pass in or out of the enclosure. This was a plunge into the most vividly coloured phase of life I had so far seen. I had known horse sales in Norwich, local races and
regattas; but what were they compared to this vast fair and meeting combined on Bungay Common ?

Nellie Gray, 1906

There were roundabouts, shooting-galleries, swinging-boats and coconut shies ; large eating- and drinking-tents, flags flying, and thousands of oranges blazing on stalls in the sun. I had never seen such droves of ponies and gypsy lads. But all this, with music and noise, died away and dwindled to nothing when I saw the thoroughbred horses and jockeys professional and
gentlemen riders (riding with a proper length, and not with the short leathers of to-day) in bright silk colours, going off down the course.

Bungay Races, 1901

So imagine me, gaping at the scene now thrown at me all at once. The peaceful School of Art, the smelly artists’ room faded away, and I began to live ! I had never imagined such a sight, although my imagination went as far as prairie fires.

And so race followed race, steeple-chase or hurdle, while I stood either at the open ditch or water-jump seeing such colour and action as I had never dreamed of. So ended my first race day.

More was to follow. Next morning he tapped at my door and said, ” You must come racing again.” I didn’t refuse. Nothing mattered. I was an artist with two pictures hung in the Academy! Besides, my time in the lithographic business was shortly to end and I was to start painting and burn my boats.

Thus ended two great days in my life, and soon after I did a set of four pastels the jumps, the finish and all the rest and sold them for what I thought was a lot of money.”.

Sir Alfred Munnings, “An Artist’s Life”, 1950 (his autobiography).