The un-peaceful plein air paintings of Sir Alfred Munnings

Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings, Canadian War Museum
“I love it when a painter shows a little more than I had credited him or her with,” Victoria Brzustowicz wrote me earlier this month. “I had always dismissed Alfred Munnings as a facile society painter of horses and the beautiful people who owned them. Then I saw some more energetic pieces and I was impressed. These have the vitality and energy of Sorolla, I think.”
If I thought of Sir Alfred at all, I’ve only done so in passing, because his early twentieth-century horses are too twee for me. Then I came across the stupendous canvas, above, the Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron, from the Canadian War Museum, and realized I had to reassess him.
Study of Lady Munnings Riding with Her Dogs on Exmoor, 1924, Sir Alfred Munnings, Munnings Art Museum
Raised in the English countryside, Munnings was apprenticed to a printer at the age of 14. He attended art school in his spare time. The loss of sight in his right eye in 1898, when he was twenty, did not affect either his drawing and painting skills or his ability to ride. He was married twice, both times to avid horsewomen. His second wife, Violet McBride, encouraged his career as a society painter, which resulted in his knighthood in 1944.
Munnings is famous for an inebriated defense of traditional painting, delivered to millions of listeners over the BBC. “Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join with me in kicking his … something something?” he recalled Winston Churchill asking him.
Munnings volunteered for the Great War, but in his mid-thirties and blind in one eye, was deemed unfit. Instead, he processed tens of thousands of Canadian horses en route to the battlefields of France.
Major-General the Right Hon. JEB Seely on Warrior, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings, Canadian War Museum
Eventually, he was moved forward to a horse depot on the Western Front. There he painted a field portrait of General Jack Seely astride his horse Warrior, above. During this painting, artist and models came under enemy fire.
Warrior participated in one of the last great cavalry charges in modern warfare, during the Battle of Moreuil Wood in 1918. Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron (1918) is a scene from that engagement. Canadian Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew led a charge against two lines of enemy, each about sixty strong, heavily armed with machine guns. Although about 70% of Flowerdew’s squadron were casualties, they managed to ride over the enemy lines twice, forcing them to withdraw. Flowerdew himself was fatally wounded. Though Moreuil Wood was taken and the German advance checked, a quarter of the men and half of the horses were lost.
Draft horses, lumber mill in the Forest of Dreux, 1918, Sir Alfred Munnings, Canadian War Museum
WWI was the last war in which horses played a critical part, but it was a crucial one. It has been estimated that some eight million horses, mules and donkeys died on both sides. For an artist who loved the beasts, sending them off to battle and painting them while they worked must have been terrible responsibilities.