01 December 2018

"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.


Joseph said...

No wonder this was the war to end all wars. 10 million military men, 8 million civilians and 8 million horses slaughtered. How was a new generation even born in Europe after 1919?

LMK said...

The first Munnings I ever saw was not in a gallery but in Carrick Hill in Adelaide. Just pre-war, but already the women were looking anxious.

Hels said...


and not just the 18 million young military men and civilians who died. There were probably another 20+ million who returned to their home countries without legs or eyes, or had such shell shock as to be psychotic.

Hels said...


Thanks for the reminder about "Autumn, Cornwall". Carrick Hill said the following:

Carrick Hill is fortunate to possess a painting produced during Munnings's early sunny years and he described his happy times in Cornwall in his autobiography thus: There were spots where I could laze and be idle and drowsy enough in Norfolk, but of all places on the right day, I find myself more often longing to be back on those Cornish cliffs, lying in the sun, listening to the incessant sound of surf.

And only two years later, Europe crashed into the trenches :(

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The human toll is so large in war (and other tragedies) that it can eclipse concomitant loss of animals and cultural legacies. Oddly, a description of a war horse painting was used by Saki to sardonically describe the dullness and complacency of some of his characters: "A riderless warhorse with harness in obvious disarray, staggering into a courtyard full of pale swooning women, and marginally noted, 'Bad News', suggested to their minds a distinct interpretation of some military catastrophe. They could see what it was meant to convey, and explain it to friends of duller intelligence." In the context of your post, an even more cutting remark was perhaps intended against people like the protagonists, the viewing of paintings like Alfred Munning's simply as decoration, while ignoring the artist's real meaning and commentary about war.
p.s. The story was The Reticence of Lady Anne, a perfect example of Saki's bitter humor.

Andrew said...

Thank goodness horses are no longer part of war, although I am sure many animals still suffer in wartime.

Hels said...


handsome officers sitting astride handsome horses, not in the mud of the trenches, might look decorative and proud *nod*. Especially when you compare Munnings to other Canadian artists who were on the Western Front eg Richard Jack, Alfred Bastien and William Barnes Wollen.

But Munnings took the risk of being an embedded artist with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, specially because he wanted to cap­t­ure the fighting front with its blood and its booming guns.

Hels said...


not only did the horses suffer during WW1. So did the farming families in Britain who gave up their most important working animals to the Allied armies in Europe, without compensation :(

Adam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hels said...


my pleasure. Which areas of history are you most interested in?