Sir Alfred Munnings

The Horse Fair

Watercolour and gouache: 12.5(h) x 17.8(w) in /

31.8(h) x 45.1(w) cm

Signed and dated 1905

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BS 314



Mendham 1878 – 1959 Dedham


The horse fair


Signed and dated lower left: A.J. Munnings. 1905

Watercolour and gouache: 12 ½ x 17 ¾ in / 31.7 x 45 cm

Frame size: 20 x 26 in / 50.8 x 66 cm



Private collection, UK

Richard Green, London, 2004

Mrs Suzanne Weiss, USA



By 1901 Alfred Munnings had completed his lithographic apprenticeship at Page Brothers in Norwich and was living in his native village of Mendham, Suffolk and striking out on his own as a painter. The life of local fairs provided an endless source of subject matter. Munnings sent an ambitious 50 x 80 in oil painting of A Suffolk horse fair, Lavenham (Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum, Dedham) to the Royal Academy in 1901[1] and continued to explore this theme in oil and watercolour over the next few years. He was a regular attendee of horse fairs both as spectator and buyer, as he changed his equestrian models every few months.  


This watercolour dates from 1905, the year that Munnings showed an oil painting of Leaving the fair at the Royal Academy. It shows a gypsy horse dealer promoting the merits of a sturdy grey. The models for the men were taken from the ‘loafing fraternity not engaged in regular work’[2]  and probably include Ned and Pod Aldous, ‘types bred in every village since the Stone Age’ who ‘were always ready, if about, to do anything in the standing or sitting line for a pint, or better still, a quart’[3]. The Aldous brothers feature in the upright oil Horse fair, 1902, in Norwich Art Gallery, in which Nobby Gray (another local character) is shown dressed in gaiters and the same buff coat with black trim as the principal figure in the Horse fair watercolour[4]. The green-striped caravans and gypsy woman with earthenware bowls on a trestle feature in slightly different guise in a watercolour of 1909, Caravans and horses (private collection)[5].


The painting shows Munnings’s skill with watercolour in the solidity and complexity of the figures, the harmony of the composition and the psychological tension of the moment leading up to the sale. As so often, he uses a grey horse as a focus. The buff and brown clothes of the foreground figures are offset by touches of blue: in the skirt of the gypsy woman, the kerchief of the man with his back to the spectator and the richly-impasted shadows of the caravan to the left.   



Mendham 1878 – 1959 Dedham



Born in Mendham, Suffolk, Alfred Munnings was the son of a miller.  He was apprenticed to a firm of lithographers from 1893 to 1898 and studied at the Norwich School of Art and in Paris. There he was impressed with plein-air naturalism; this, together with his introduction to the racecourse in 1899, influenced the themes for which he became famous.


While in Mendham, Munnings painted many scenes of country life, particularly horse fairs.  He went to Cornwall in 1908, and for many years was an important addition to the Newlyn School of artists.  When the First World War broke out, Munnings enlisted, despite having the use of only one eye owing to an accident in 1899.  He became an army horse trainer near Reading and later went to France as an official war artist, attached to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade.


The year 1919 was a major turning-point in all aspects of Munnings’s life; he painted his first racehorse, Pothlyn, the winner of the Grand National, and became an Associate of the Royal Academy.  He met Violet McBride, whom he was to marry, and bought Castle House, Dedham, where the Munnings Memorial Trust maintains a permanent exhibition of his pictures. Munnings’s prolific career, spanning over 60 years, brought him honour, with election to the Presidency of the Royal Academy in 1944, a Knighthood in 1945, and a personal award from the Sovereign in 1947, when he was created Knight of the Royal Victorian Order.



[1] See London, Sotheby’s, An English Idyll: a Loan Exhibition of Works by Sir Alfred Munnings, 2002, p.48-9, no.3, illus. in colour.

[2] Sir Alfred Munnings, An Artist’s Life, London 1950, p.110.

[3] Munnings, op. cit., pp.111-112.

[4] An Artist’s Life, illus. opposite p.105.

[5] See London, Sotheby’s, An English Idyll: a Loan Exhibition of Works by Sir Alfred Munnings, 2001, p.69, no.21).

SportingSir Alfred Munnings