Sir Alfred James Munnings
Sir Alfred James Munnings (British, 1878–1959)
FANCY DRESS PARTY
White chalk on black linen, 50” x 42 ½”
Signed with initials, dated 2 a.m., Nov. 29, 1907
Provenance: Norwich City Club
Phillips, Modern British Paintings Drawings and Sculpture, June 28, 1982, lot 44
Literature: Eastern Evening News, November 18, 1977
On a November evening a liquored-up Munnings got into an argument with a fellow member of the private Norwich City Club. The member had alleged an artist needed every comfort and a proper studio in which to create works of art. Never known to hold back from voicing his opinion, Munnings insisted the man was wrong, probably using some choice words along the way. To prove his point, he ripped down some of the curtains and grabbed a piece of billiard chalk and went to work. By the time he was finished he had produced two pieces and in an added flourish noted the time the memorable works were finished. The works completed in less than ideal conditions were of a steeplechaser on one curtain and a clown talking with a saucy pierrette on the other, and thus Munnings demonstratively won the argument. After that night, the works were placed in a drawer and forgotten until the club moved. At the time they were executed, Munnings was an unknown, far from his legendary status, and so the club didn’t take much notice. By the time they were finally pulled out to be thrown away, Munnings’ name was well known and their importance realized. They were framed and hung in the billiard room until the club had to move buildings once again. At this point they would not fit in the new premises and were sold.
Norwich became the artist’s home starting at the age of 14 when his father apprenticed him to the lithographers Page Brothers. During his time in Norwich before the Great War, his work featured many of the interesting people of the area such as gypsies and fair workers. At Page Brothers he churned out advertisements featuring odd characters. In his autobiography he recalled a fondness for the circus and clowns and frequently he would work with his close friend Dame Laura Knight, a noted artist whose own work featured the circus.
Munnings frequently would use what he could find in order to produce work. He would sketch on racing programs, and Cross Gate Gallery once sold a party invitation he received that had been sketched on and on which was written “Beer is Good.” He was also known for voicing his opinion, whether welcome or not. Combined with a penchant for a drink or two, he could find himself in some interesting situations such as this creative night. Perhaps the most famous example of his spontaneity occurred during his presidency of the Royal Academy when he gave a speech in a 1949 BBC radio broadcast that was heard by millions. A clearly inebriated Munnings attacked modern art and claimed that Winston Churchill had once asked him: “Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his… something something?”
“Yes, yes I would,” was Munnings’ answer.