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Sir Alfred Munnings - Chestnuts in bloom at Castle House, Dedham

Sir Alfred Munnings

Chestnuts in bloom at Castle House, Dedham

Oil on canvas: 25.1(h) x 30.2(w) in / 63.8(h) x 76.8(w) cm
Signed lower right: A.J. Munnings

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 Mendham 1878 - 1959 Dedham

Ref: BV 134


Chestnuts in bloom at Castle House, Dedham


Signed lower right: A.J. Munnings

Oil on canvas: 25 1/8 x 30¼ in / 63.8 x 76.8 cm

Frame Size: 31 x 36 in / 78.7 x 91.4 cm

Painted in the 1920s




Sir Harold Gillies, CBE, FRCS (1882-1960)

Christie’s London, 15th March 1985, lot 248

Frost & Reed Ltd., London;

from whom acquired at the Radnor Hunt Club Exhibition, October 1985 by

Dorrance ‘Dodo’ Hill Hamilton (1928-2017), USA



In 1919 Alfred Munnings, after the upheavals of the First World War and service in France as a War Artist, bought Castle House, Dedham in Essex. On the borders with Suffolk and near the River Stour, it provided elements essential to Munnings’s art and his whole existence: a tranquil rural life and a willow-fringed, meandering river with watermills like the one at Mendham where he had grown up. It had the additional advantage of being ‘Constable Country’, for the great East Anglian landscapist so revered by Munnings had been born in nearby East Bergholt. After the tragedy of his first marriage, also in 1919 Munnings met Violet McBride, who was to become his second wife the following year. 


Castle House, today the Munnings Art Museum, is a mellow, rambling building with a seventeenth century core and Regency additions. It came with about thirty acres of land which Munnings used as grazing for his horses. He set many paintings in the grounds, including My wife, my horse and myself (Munnings Museum). This view shows the lovely circle of chestnut trees that fringes the garden front of the house. Pure landscape painting, as opposed to lucrative but often frustrating equestrian portraiture, was very dear to Munnings’s heart, especially when he was painting familiar scenes. Here he captures a brilliant May morning with long, delicious shadows and the trees thick with white blossom. The vivacity of the brushwork and the myriad colours which Munnings draws out of nature reflect the artist as a true, observant countryman. One is pleased to note that the chestnuts still flourish at Castle House.


The Munnings Museum has a photograph of the artist painting the present work, captioned ‘Stable Yard Castle House’. The museum holds another, smaller version of this view, with minor differences in the tree line and shadows, titled View at Castle House[1].


Chestnuts in bloom at Castle House, Dedham was owned by Sir Harold Gillies, CBE, FRCS (1882-1960), the pioneering plastic surgeon who developed facial reconstruction techniques for servicemen injured in the First World War. It was later in the collection of Dorrance ‘Dodo’ Hill Hamilton (1928-2017), the billionaire heiress of the Campbell Soup fortune. Mrs Hill, who had homes in Wayne, Pennsylvania, Boca Grande, Florida and Newport, Rhode Island, was a major philanthropist in the fields of the arts, education, medicine, conservation and horticulture. Among many institutions, she supported Thomas Jefferson University, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Morris Arboretum and the Philadelphia Flower Show, at whose plant competitions she was a keen exhibitor for nearly thirty years.




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] Inv. no.525. Oil on canvas 20 x 24 in / 50.8 x 61 cm. See Andrew Ellis, Oil Paintings in Public Ownership in Essex, London 2006, p.118, illus. in colour. We are grateful to Jenny Hand, Director of the Munnings Museum, for information about the photograph and the second painting.

Other Works By
Sir Alfred Munnings:

Sir Alfred Munnings - Portrait of Mrs Frederick Henry Prince (1860-1949) in the New England woods Sir Alfred Munnings - After the Steeplechase at Newbury Sir Alfred Munnings - The Norwich Fair