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Sir Alfred Munnings - The Norwich Fair

Sir Alfred Munnings

The Norwich Fair

Watercolour and gouache: 13.7(h) x 16.9(w) in / 34.9(h) x 42.9(w) cm
Signed and dated lower right: A.J. Munnings / 1907

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 Mendham 1878 - 1959 Dedham

Ref: BT 192


The Norwich Fair


Signed and dated lower right: A.J. Munnings / 1907

Watercolour and gouache: 13¾ x 16 7/8 in / 34.9 x 42.9 cm

Frame Size: 20 x 23 in / 50.8 x 58.4 cm


In a semi-Carlo style gilded hollow frame





Scott and Fowles, New York, circa 1955

Wildenstein & Co., New York

Private collection, USA



Alfred Munnings gained his superb command of watercolour during his six-year lithographic apprenticeship at Page Brothers in Norwich (1893-99), honing his natural skills as a draughtsman and sense of composition by designing advertising materials for Caley’s Chocolate and Colman’s Mustard. He also studied the medium with Gertrude Offord at Norwich School of Art. By 1900 Munnings was living in his native village of Mendham, Suffolk and striking out on his own as a painter; he subsequently set up a studio at Church Farm in Swainsthorpe, more convenient for Norwich. 


The life of local East Anglian fairs provided an endless source of subject matter in the first decade of the twentieth century. Munnings found ready buyers, particularly for works like this watercolour, among Norwich businessmen and other collectors in this bustling, confident city. He sent an ambitious 50 x 80 in oil painting of A Suffolk horse fair, Lavenham (The Munnings Art Museum, Dedham) to the Royal Academy in 1901 and continued to explore this theme in oil and watercolour. He was a regular attendee of horse fairs both as spectator and buyer, as he changed his equestrian models every few months.  


The brilliantly handled, complex composition and interest in rural ‘characters’, such as the man standing on the left of this watercolour, is typical of Munnings’s fair scenes of the early twentieth century. He evokes the murmur of the crowd listening to the speaker in the background, and picks out two little girls, attired in their Sunday best with white dresses and matching hats. Similar in spirit, with its good-humoured observation of rural leisure and the decorative qualities of female costume, is the watercolour Susan at the fair, 1908 (The Munnings Art Museum, Dedham).


The focus of the foreground, as so often with Munnings, is a white pony ridden bareback by a scruffy but confident boy. The white pony with the dark nose is Augereau, named by Munnings after a character in a play (he was a keen theatre-goer in these years, and an ebullient performer of verse himself). Munnings bought the pony from the gypsy horse-dealer Drake in Norwich. He appears in many paintings of this period, including The path to the orchard, 1908 (The Munnings Art Museum, Dedham) and The coming storm, 1910 (New South Wales Art Gallery, Sydney). Various local lads modelled for him, the most famous being the gypsy boy Shrimp (Fountain Page) – ‘an undersized, tough, artful young brigand’[1] – whom Munnings seems to have employed from 1908. The boy in this watercolour is younger and more round-faced than Shrimp.



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] Sir Alfred Munnings, An Artist’s Life, London 1950, p.207.

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 - Dunkery Beacon from Selworthy, Exmoor