Saturday, September 6, 2014

Audley End and Munnings

Back in the days when I was studying History of Art during the holidays my mother and I used to go on days out to look for galleries and impressive architecture, it was even better if the gallery was in the impressive architecture. At Christmas it was always a gothic cathedral (until the year we went to Lincoln and I was very sick which somehow took the edge off the experience and the habit lapsed) and over Easter and the summer increasingly distant forays to country houses. It's been ages since we've done anything like that though so a recent trip to Audley End and the Munnings Museum (in Dedham near Colchester) was a particularly nice way to spend the day together. (My mother is exceptionally good company anyway, but we're at one on the importance of tea and buns at regular intervals - this is a factor in a successful day out that should never be underestimated; low blood sugar is nobody's friend in these circumstances.)

The main objective was the Munnings collection, for me because I've always had a soft spot for him - and mum... well it was my choice but one I thought she'd enjoy, which she did. Dedham is about 3 hours drive away for us so Audley End was basically picked off the map as a convenient tea stop (they do a very good coffee, a passable scone - no jam - and an excellent caramel shortbread). Obviously it's worth a visit in it's own right, the grounds are everything you'd hope for from Capability Brown, what's left of the house is impressive (what was once a palace to rival Hampton Court was slowly knocked down by several generations short of cash) with some great paintings but perhaps what's best about it is how much of the domestic workings you get to see. The kitchens and sculleries (complete with gleaming copper pans and well blacked range) are fairly standard but the wet and dry laundry rooms and immaculate dairy bought the house alive in a way you don't always see. Better yet was the coal gallery, which as far as I'm aware is quite an unusual feature. On the first floor, so convenient for the bedrooms, is a longish gallery. Coal was hauled up to it through one of the windows and then shovelled into huge bins, apparently enough could be stored up there to heat the house for 5 days, it was used for fires but it's also where all the water for bathing was heated. It must have been a hell of a place to work.

I didn't think much of the film 'Summer in February' when I saw it last summer and haven't read the nook it was based on but Persephone published another of Jonathan Smith's books so have been great at publicising linked things. It's thanks to Persephone that I recognised a Laura Knight coronation mug from across a crowded junk shop and thanks to them that I heard about this museum in the first place. This year they have a room dedicated to his Lamorna work, one dedicated to his second wife, and some of his Great War sketches. It all lives in Castle House,  the Munnings home, which was endowed by the artists widow with a quantity of his work, the furniture she didn't want to decamp to London with, a reasonable amount of money, and the stuffed body of her favourite Pekinese.
Just visible, I hope, are sketches Munnings did of race horses in the plasterwork of an out building. 

I think most people there when we visited had seen the film, it certainly can't have done visitor numbers any harm, and there was one room attendant who seemed to be having a lot of fun giving an alternative view Munnings. In the film he's a bit of a womaniser who marries a girl we can assume was probably bi polar, she has an affair and kills herself. My room attendant thought Florence was just a young girl led astray, that the artist wasn't much interested in women at all, and suggested that his second marriage was a purely business arrangement. There was quite an argument brewing. As much fun as that kind of speculation can be the main thing was getting the chance to assess Munnings work as a body rather than see isolated examples of typically horsey stuff. Until recently the museum has had an active acquisitions policy but Munnings increasing popularity has priced them out now - it didn't stop one lady asking why, if he was so popular, they had so many there. (She was not convinced).

There are examples of poster designs he did in the late 1890's for which he won prizes, and which are also very typically fin de siècle, and then the Lamorna stuff which is suitably post impressionistic, and then lots and lots of horses. Munnings made his money after being engaged by the Canadian war memorials fund which led to a number of prestigious commissions, his wife, Violet, carried on by introducing him to potential clients and taking on the business aspects of their life together. The things that are very clear from seeing so much of his work together is that he was both very good, and really, really, understood horses. What is less clear is how much he was motivated by cash. Looking at the images of a very specific vision of English life, and given his publicly stated dislike of modernism, he could appear almost subversive now, and maybe it was a deliberate attempt to record a way if life that was vanishing. On the other hand perhaps it was easy money for doing something he liked. Either way it's worth making the trip to Dedham.


  1. Oh, those mo(u)lds and the copper pans. Gorgeous. Not so sure I could handle the range though! Lovely photos.

  2. The range was massive, and there were a couple of them, it must have got hot in there! But the copper is beautiful isn't it. Would love some moulds

  3. We are going to have open shelving in our new kitchen but they are unlikely to have such beautiful things on them.

  4. I love open shelves, so nice to see what you want and just be able to grab it. I imagine yours will be full of beautiful things as well.