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"The Alfred Munnings: War Artist 1918" exhibition, Britain then Canada

I wanted to focus on WW1 anniversary exhibitions in this blog before the end of 2018. So today we will examine Canadian soldiers and horses in Europe, and next post we will examine animals in the Australian army camps in Europe.

From a young age Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) loved drawing. His art was further developed through his apprenticeship as a lith­og­rapher in Norwich and by attending night classes at Norwich School of Art. By the time Munnings set up his first studio in Mendham, Suffolk in the late 1890s, he had already exhibited at London’s Royal Academy. Munnings travelled extensively to enhance his knowledge of art and techniques. He visited continental galleries, studied in Paris and was based in Cornwall with other well-known artists like Laura and Harold Knight.

Exhibition catalogue
Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918
Now in the National Army Museum in Chelsea

Thanks to the Canadian War Museum for the following details. It was WW1 that was the making of him because soldiers and horses always had a special relationship. Munnings was denied service in the British army because of a blind eye, but he found work examin­ing horses for diseases and parasites as they arrived to supply cavalry and transport units the programme acquired 44 artworks from Munnings, which are now part of the Canadian War Museum.

In the early part of WW1, Canadian soldiers were rarely featured in official images. But in 1916, a Canadian newspaper mogul became that country’s wartime publicist in London. Sir Max Aitken later Lord Beaverbrook used his considerable political influence and personal fortune to create the Canadian War Memorials Fund. The programme employed British, Belgian and Canadian painters, photo­graph­ers and sculptors to capture the Canadian war effort, at home and overseas. Mun­nings was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund as an official war artist.

Sold­iers, horses, battles and ruined landscapes were made when Munnings joined Lord Beaverbrook’s art initiative in 1918. Munning's time in the final year of WW1 was an embedded artist with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, on the Western Front. Munnings wanted to cap­t­ure the fighting front and logistics behind the scenes. With 45 paint­ings of the Canadian Cavalry hung in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1919, Munnings became a household name.

Eight million horses suffered and died in WW1. So in 2014-5 The Lightbox Gallery in Surrey ran an exhibition, exploring how the horse was depicted in war, both heroically and as beast-of-burden. Some of the leading British artists of the day were on show, including William Roberts and Sir Alfred Munnings. A social history display looked at the care and training of the horse and local effects of the requisition of horses during WW1. Lightbox Gallery said about Munnings that he had the ability, like no other artist, to exquisitely depict equestrian subjects, capturing their rippling muscles and sheen of colour.

Now a new WW1 exhibition at the National Army Museum in Chelsea has been developed by the Canadian War Museum (Ottawa) in partnership with The Munnings Art Museum (Dedham) and The Beaver­brook Canadian Foundation. Paintings regarded as one of the most important collections of war art anywhere have gone on display together for the first time since they were exhibited in 1919.

The exhibition Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918 shows his mas­t­ery of equine subjects, portraiture and landscapes. It features 40+ original paintings from Munning’s time with the Canadian Expeditionary Force late in WW1.

His impressionist paintings highlighted the role of horses in mil­itary operations, while capturing the beauty of these animals in the war-affected landscapes of France. And it was this impress­ionism that made him the C20th’s greatest equine artist and this exhibition reminds people of the importance of horses in WW1.

Munnings, Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron, 1918

Munnings, Moving the truck another yard, 1918

Munnings went to the Battle Front to paint his subjects. Although modern weaponry made cavalry almost obsolete by WW1, he saw that horses still played an important role in transport. So this exhibit­ion features rare paintings of soldiers and their mounts at rest, at work and in battle.

The Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation’s Collection of War Art, established in 1960 by Lord Beaverbrook, has a long history with the Museum and loved that the Canadian artworks was returning to Britain. Appropriately it was Alfred Munnings who produced evocative images of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Canadian Forestry Corps.

After London, the exhibition will move to the Munnings Art Museum in Dedham Essex in March 2019; the elegant country manor that was the artist’s home and studio. Then will make its North American debut at the Canadian War Museum and a cross-Canada tour.


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