We went to visit the Munnings Museum in Dedham this afternoon. I'd been vaguely meaning to go for ages, ages in this case being several years, without ever actually getting round to it, then when it appeared in an episode of Fake or Fortune we agreed we really would go. That was months ago, and today we finally went.
It occupies Munning's former home, a gracious house on the edge of the village that was steadily added to and adapted from the days of Dedham's riches and pomp as a wool town through to the Georgian era. The downstairs rooms open to the public are still furnished as a house, with Munnings' paintings on the walls, then there is more of his work displayed in the hall and in a couple of the upstairs rooms, plus photographs and memorabilia of his life. I am not sure whether in his lifetime he hung quite so much of his own work in his house, which seems a little akin to a musician going on Desert Island Discs and choosing eight of their own recordings, or whether he collected works by other artists. Either way, it is a very nice house and I can imagine Munnings and his well-connected second wife living the life of country gents there.
I really liked Munnings' paintings. He was one of those painters who was a commercial success in his own lifetime, and became very much part of the establishment in his later years after relatively modest beginnings as a miller's son in Norfolk. He received a knighthood and was president of The Royal Academy, and all I knew of his work originally was that he painted horses. My desire to see his museum was initially prompted mainly by curiosity, because it was there on my doorstep. Then we learned from Fake or Fortune that he was a fair landscape painter as well, but I still wanted to visit the museum largely in a spirit of enquiry, rather than any fixed conviction that I would love his work.
But I did. Sir Alfred James Munnings was a thoroughgoing Englishman, who liked horses and dogs and the English landscape, and liked painting them. I can see why the Establishment took to him and why he was so popular in his lifetime. His pictures are full of light and the effects of light, bright colours expressed in thick layers of paint. Roger Fry hated him, and the dislike was mutual. Munnings disliked modernism and mocked it. But I find it perfectly possible to like Barbara Hepworth and Alfred Munnings. I am myself a thoroughgoing Englishwoman who likes animals and the English landscape, and found his plein air oil painting of a sow and her piglets standing in the dappled shade of a tree on a hot day a very jolly thing which I would happily live with in my own house. I would happily live with a Hepworth bronze as well, while reconciled to the fact that I'm not going to get either of them.
Apart from his easy, breezy charm, I actually think Munnings was a far better painter than Fry gave him credit for. His local scenes were absolutely spot on in terms of catching the East Anglian light. It is a real thing, the fabled quality of the light under the big skies of East Anglia, and Munnings got it. He was no mere generic hedge painter.
There is a tea room at the museum, with plenty of big tables outside and two tiny ones under cover, so I don't know how they manage on wet days. The outside tables command a view over a paddock where a white pony and a mysteriously hooded horse were grazing. The pony nicely echoed the presence of other white ponies in several of the paintings, though the modern day equine is called Dinky. The mysterious hooded horse was Thomas. The scones in our cream tea were excellent but we weren't convinced by the Pukka Tea version of English Breakfast tea. It said English Breakfast on the tag, but the flavour was oddly herbal.