Monday, 14 March 2011
Munnings: a second draft
SOMETIMES it helps to blog on a subject, just to get a first draft down on this strange computer-generated brown blotting paper called Riverside Norwich. Once something – anything - is on paper, you feel more confident in fiddling, editing, adding and subtracting. And it helps if you’ve done your homework. I had already read the relevant chapter of his autobiography and all of a hefty biography by Jean Goodman. It’s ended up longer than I planned, 500 words rather than 200, but he is a genuinely big name for this part of the world. So, with the help of a couple of photos which might just break the odd copyright law, here goes:
Alfred Munnings was a whimsical artistic genius who became famous between the wars for his paintings of horses. He was often eccentric and always the life and soul of the party. “If at the end of the evening he had insufficient money,” said his biographer Jean Goodman, “he would present the landlord with a drawing offered with such confidence that it was invariably accepted as good currency.”
His most high-profile years saw him capturing the colour and drama of the races at courses like Epsom and Sandown, where he was loved by everyone from the stable lads he joked with to the royalty who offered him commissions.
But his Costessey links go back to an earlier stage of his life when this miller’s son from the banks of the Waveney was still finding his feet. His first job was very commercial; designing posters and adverts at a lithographer’s in Norwich. (Incidentally, he loved Norwich and its pubs. A favourite haunt says Goodman, “was a little Dickensian panelled bar at the Maid’s Head.”)
And it was while he was living in Norwich that he discovered The Falcon Inn at Costessey during a bicycle ride. “Meeting a landlord who looked like one and just a ride [away] had opened up a new world with fresh ideas.,” he wrote in his autobiography An Artist’s Life. “My first short stay at The Falcon was only a feeler for my future painting on the Ringland Hills.”
Those future paintings came in the spring and early summer of 1910 when he left Norwich with a motley collection of caravans and carts, horses and ponies. Accompanying him was a man called Bob, who looked after the gear, and a teenager called Shrimp whom Munnings later described him as an “utterably uneducated, wild ageless youth”. These two, paid handsomely by Munnings, would set out each day from The Falcon Inn in Costessey to find a suitable spot for the outdoor paintings that Munnings craved. Shrimp, says Goodman, had a talent for grouping horses just as his master wanted. And over six weeks dozens of 50 inch by 40 inch canvases were completed by an artist making the most of his new found freedom.
So why here? Well, Munnings described Ringland and Costessey as being “situated in one of the loveliest districts of all the pleasant country surrounding the old city.” Of the Ringland Hills he wrote: “I developed a passion for the gorgeous blazing yellow of gorse in bloom.”
He invited friends to stay in Costessey, loving the relaxed atmosphere of The Bush (which survives as a pub) where he enjoyed “the soothing, idle holiday atmosphere about its garden”.
So how is Munnings country in the 21st century? Well Costessey keeps its village feel and The Bush retains its lengthy garden. And the undulating hills between the Tud and the Wensum are both pretty and pretty unusual in this part of Norfolk. But a land of wild heathland suitable for a bunch of scruffy bohemians? Not any more I’m afraid.