6 April – 23 October 2022 at the Munnings Art Museum, Dedham, Essex
A chance to discover Munnings’ earliest and least-known works
In 1892, aged just 14, Alfred Munnings moved from the family home in Mendham, Suffolk to Norwich, where he became an apprentice at Page Bros. & Co. Ltd, a firm of lithographic printers. Here, he learnt to design advertisements and posters. During the 1890’s, Munnings undertook work for large local companies, such as Colman’s Mustard and Caley’s Crackers and Chocolates.
In a new exhibition at Castle House – his home for more than 40 years – the Munnings Art Museum presents a vibrant display of his lesser-known commercial work, which demonstrates his burgeoning talent and ability to capture the popular aesthetic of la belle époque. The exhibition is the first of its kind, focusing on Munnings’ early career, between the ages of 14 and 20.
Alfred Munnings: the Art of the Poster features over 100 designs, paintings, drawings, including 13 loans from private collections.
“People are not really aware of this period of his life, and the art is in no way typical of what people would expect from him,” explains Munnings Art Museum Director, Jenny Hand. “At this stage, his paintings were often romantic and inspired by literature rather than horses. Indeed, people figure more than equines which, of course, he became synonymous with in later life.”
The female influences on Munnings’ early career are also explored in the exhibition, including his watercolour tutor at the Norwich School of Art, the award-winning painter Gertrude Offord. Munnings took evening classes after work, and he recalled: “For the greater part of six years I worked under her…What lessons she gave in water-colour painting! Her enthusiasm was as great as her skill…what a lot I learned from Miss Offord!”
A key aspect of The Art of the Poster is its demonstration of Munnings’ ability to capture the popular aesthetic of the belle époque, making the show a must-see for all those interested in late Victorian art and design including Art Nouveau style.
His poster and packaging designs – particularly for the Norwich-based Caley’s Crackers and Chocolate – were influenced by the likes of Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Recognising the young artist’s talent, John Shaw Tomkins, the Director of Caley’s became his first artistic patron. Amongst his other commissions, Munnings was responsible for the Georgian-inspired ‘Gentleman’ logo for Bullard’s Brewery and he also struck up a friendship with the firm’s director, Dick Bullard, whose portrait he painted.
The exhibition also features works rarely seen in public, with all of the loaned objects coming from private collections not usually on public display.
The Art of the Poster will also reunite two loaned pictures, travelling separately to Dedham from private collections. In Brentford Town (1900) and Daddy’s Gone a Hunting (1900) are not believed to have been hung together since the Norwich Art Circle ‘black and white’ exhibition of May 1900. In addition to these, watercolour and oil paintings from the 1890s and early 1900s will also be shown alongside Munnings’ numerous designs for Caley’s Crackers posters and box-tops.
This unique assemblage of early, commercial pictures affords visitors a remarkable insight into the latent talent of Munnings and his commercial nous. His willingness to paint commissioned work stayed with him throughout his entire career, making him highly successful and his services much in demand throughout his life. From an early age, in the 1890s, Munnings was able to recognise and produce fashionable imagery, which also meant he often brought work to Page Bros. This positive attitude further benefited his career in the 1920s and 1930s, when he was commissioned to paint fashionable equestrian portraits, which made him wealthy in his own right.
Of his time as an apprentice, Munnings once remarked: “I was doing work which they could not, bringing poster and figure design work to a firm that had never before done anything of the kind. As those years went on my designs must have brought a great deal of business to Page Bros. & Co. Ltd, of Norwich, for I often had more work handed to me than I could cope with.
“The manager might come with a packet of papers and ask me to leave what I was doing and get out a rough design at once, as it was urgent, so much so that unless it were done by to-morrow, some other firm which had already submitted quotations and designs for the advertising of the commodity might get the order. These often went to many thousands of copies.”
The Norfolk and Norwich Art Circle are re-introducing the black and white category in their exhibition this year, as their Chair Hazel Pidsley reveals: “I am so pleased that there will be an exhibition of Sir Alfred’s earlier work, which he painted during his time in Norwich. As a former member of what is now Norfolk and Norwich Art Circle, we honour his legacy. It is with great pleasure that we work in partnership with Jenny Hand and Munnings Art Museum to promote him, and we will be holding an exhibition in September, with some art loaned by the museum, and our members submitting artworks in black and white in support of this aspect of his work.”
For more information about Alfred Munnings: the Art of the Poster and The Munnings Art Museum follow @AlfredMunnings on Twitter, like the ‘Munnings Art Museum’ Facebook page or visit www.munningsmuseum.org.uk.