'The house of my dreams': interpreting Sir Alfred Munnings' studio

Dr Bill Teatheredge, Honorary Curatorial Associate at the Munnings Art Museum, discusses the history of Munnings' studio and the challenges of interpreting it today

When Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) bought Castle House, Dedham, in 1919, he described it as, 'The house of my dreams.'

At this point Munnings was halfway through his life and career. His sojourn, in 1918, to the front line of the First World War as an artist with the Canadian Cavalry Brigade marked a turning point.

Prior to this he had been a well-known provincial artist; now his reputation was international.

Transporting the studio

One of Munnings' first priorities was to transport his studio from Swainsthorpe, Norfolk, to his new home. Designed and built by Boulton and Paul of Norwich, in 1906, specifically for Munnings, the studio was of sectional design which could be flat packed and moved if necessary.

In this case the studio was transported by train and cart to Dedham where it was re-erected in the grounds, in its present location.

Munnings used the studio extensively throughout the rest of his life. Famous thoroughbred racehorses were brought to the grounds of Castle House where Munnings would make studies and work them up into finished pieces. His love of local landscapes would materialise through smaller studies made en plein air which were then pieced together in the studio.

Munnings wrote: 'How often I have walked, morning after morning, over the lawn, through that little gate in the paddock and across to the studio ... I return to the scene of many happy hours of painting; of many conflicts; of work until midnight ... Many a winter night have I walked across, steering a line in the black ... I see a warm light through the curtains of my wife's room. Thanks God she is there - and the dogs.'

Munnings in the studio

A repository of the artist's life

Not all his experiences of the studio were as romantic. Munnings' absorption in his work is described by his housemaid, Majorie Coppin. In the early 1930s a church canon paid an uninvited visit to Munnings whilst he was working in the studio, "The canon knocked on the studio door and Munnings instantly shouted, 'Go away I am busy'. The canon promptly introduced himself but was met with the reply: 'I don't care who the hell you are, canon or no canon, I am busy, go away'." Munnings later apologised and invited the canon for dinner.

Having been left in trust, in 1965, Castle House is now the location of The Munnings Art Museum. Although designated as a museum, the prevailing focus is that this was Munnings' home. With this in mind little has changed within the house. It is a unique repository of an artist's life, full of Munnings' antique furniture, books, correspondence and, of course, paintings. Each room is arranged as if he or Lady Munnings had just left the room.

This spirit of place also applies to Munnings' studio. Photographs of Munnings working in the studio have been used to replicate, as much as possible, how it would have been. Items such as his original easels, paintbrushes and paint boxes are on show throughout. The intention is to create a narrative within itself where, along with the accounts of his time spent there - such as those above - and the physical tools of his trade, we can understand that this was the hub of Munnings' life.

Munnings' studio

Exploring Munnings' working practices

Equally, we can acknowledge, first hand, his working practices. Indeed, some of his palettes still have paint on them. His two brown smocks, one hung on a mannequin and the other on an easel, have residues of thick paint on the right side where Munnings would wipe his brushes, providing us with further evidence as to his methods.

One of Munnings' largest paintings, Nobby Gray and the Hunt, c1905, is hung at the end of the studio almost as an altarpiece in order to pull the different factors together. Either side are other original works intermingled with the tools he used to create them. Preserving the studio in this way is not just an extension to the museum or a visitor's day out, it is acknowledging that this was the essence of Munnings' very existence. Here he worked, created and produced, in that fact the studio animates itself in its authenticity.

In doing so it is hoped that it enhances the visitor's senses where they can almost smell the painting mediums; nearly reach out and touch his brushes; visualise Munnings at work. Appealing to the imagination and genius loci, the studio might be seen as an artwork, an installation, in its own right, where the physical structure not only encompasses, but is also part of a visual and emotional experience.

Perhaps the feel of the studio is summed up in Munnings' collection of items used to paint in the field, amongst which is a half full bottle of midge repellent, a reminder of those far off idyllic painting expeditions into the East Anglian countryside.

As the poor canon found: this was Munnings' place and much revered space.

Munnings' studio equipment

About the author...

Dr Bill Teatheredge is Honorary Curatorial Associate at the Munnings Art Museum, the former home of Sir Alfred Munnings in Dedham, Essex.

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