Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Self-Portrait, 1950 

Sir Alfred Munnings PRA (1878-1959)

Self-Portrait, 1950, Sir Alfred Munnings PRA
Pen and ink and wash, paper
20th Century
10 x 8 1/2 inches; 25 x 21.5 cm
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Munnings captures himself here in brisk mood on Oaks Day 1950. The drawing was used as the cover for his autobiography An Artist's Life, which reviewed the career of one who was by then a great man of the British art world and a Past President of the Royal Academy. The particular appeal of this drawing lies in the fact that it represents so exactly a point in time, an exact date and perhaps even a place –the Athenaeum- in the painter’s life. It is also somewhat disingenuous, since it is less a conventional self-portrait, rather than a drawing of himself, and turns on its head the general practice that a self –portrait shows the artist looking out, rather than observing himself from a distance. Here the painter has embodied himself as his trade.

His images of elegant riders and yet more elegant horses typify our image of leisured Society between the wars. From the end of the Great War, Munnings benefited from a mass of aristocratic and Royal commissions, and had already painted the Prince of Wales (1921) and the Princess Royal (1931). It can easily be maintained that Munnings was the most skilful painter of the horse in the last century -and, perhaps, after Stubbs, to date. As with Stubbs it is misleading to think of Munnings solely as an equestrian painter, for the likenesses of his human sitters are equally well taken. It would be a great mistake, though, to see him merely as an accomplished technician, as his critics so swiftly did after his fall from grace. In a broadcast speech as President of the Royal Academy in 1949 he made some derogatory remarks about Picasso, Miro and others of the modern school, which promised him little mercy from contemporary critics. In retrospect, however, it is hard not to feel some admiration for such iconoclasm.

More recently, however, the work of Munnings has come to be recognised not only as a triumph of line, but as a magnificent example of the painterly tradition in British Art. The roots of Munnings's subject lie in his early experience of horse fairs and gypsies in his native East Anglia, but his technique owes much to the practice of the Newlyn colony in Cornwall, where he resided in 1911, and to the native school of Edwardian ''impressionism.'' In this context Munnings emerges as a magnificent handler of paint and a sure practitioner of effects of light and atmosphere.
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