Aunt Polly’s Hackney, ‘Hamlet’, 1905

by Sir Alfred Munnings

P.O.A.

DIMENSIONS: (unframed) 20 x 24 ins

SIGNATURE: Signed and dated lower left

MEDIUM:  oil on canvas

 

Just before his 21st birthday in 1899, Munnings lost vision in his right eye while visiting his Aunt Polly and her second husband, Mr. Hill, at Mulbarton. Munnings later rented part of Church Farm from these relatives and established his studio there for several years. His aunt and uncle, he recalls in his memoir An Artist’s Life, bred hackneys and farmed in a considerable way. Hackneys are a general-purpose lightweight trotting horse that was popular in Norfolk at the time (though today they are considered a rare breed). The horse, Hamlet, was listed in the Stud Book and Munnings wrote of him in his autobiography as so:
“Mr. Hill, a breeder of hackneys, drove a stepper, Hamlet — a liver chestnut, in the Stud Book. I have driven into Norwich with my Aunt Polly behind that mover, looking into the plate-glass windows as we went down St. Stephen’s to put up at the Boar’s head. These horses scarcely touched the road in their action. Fourteen miles an hour was an average for many.” (p 192)
The Hackney breed was developed in Great Britain as early as the 14th century, primarily in Norfolk. They were a favourite of King Henry VIII, who valued them for their attractiveness and excellent trot. He made his favouritism official in 1542 when he decreed that some of his wealthier subjects keep a certain number of Hackney stallions for breeding purposes. Hackneys possess excellent stamina and are capable of trotting at high speeds for extended periods of time. These attributes made them excellent carthorses. They were particularly popular in Norfolk, where Munnings spent his childhood. They would have been a familiar subject to the artist in the formative years of his career as a painter of horses.

 

 

Catalogue No: 5359 Categories: ,

Painted in 1905, Aunt Polly’s Hackney, ‘Hamlet’ is one of the artist’s early works, where his development as a painter of horses is seen. Using soft brushstrokes in a light brown Munnings has portrayed Hamlet’s gleaming muscles and coat. Combined with the addition of a bright white in the horse’s eye to depict its curious expression, Munnings has captured the very character of Hamlet.

This work was gift for Mrs Polly Hill, Munnings’ aunt, who features in Munnings’ autobiography ‘An Artist’s Life’:
‘My Uncle Arthur who used to put me in front of him on his horse when I was a small boy, married the daughter of a comparatively wealthy farmer, and lived and died at Church Farm, Swainsthorpe, five miles from Norwich. His widow, Aunt Polly, had again married, a well-to-do bachelor, a Mr Hill, who farmed in a large way at Mulbarton, the next parish.’ (p.190)

Gifted to Mr and Mrs (Aunt Polly) Hill by the artist;
Private Collection, United Kingdom

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The Taylor Gallery, London, Sir Alfred Munnings; Some Early Works, Spring 2015

Born in Mendham, Suffolk, Alfred Munnings was the son of a miller. He was apprenticed to a firm of lithographers from 1893 to 1898 and studied at the Norwich School of Art and in Paris. There, Munnings was impressed with plein-air naturalism; this, together with his introduction to the racecourse in 1899, influenced the themes for which he became famous.
While in Mendham, Munnings painted many scenes of country life, particularly horse fairs. He went to Cornwall in 1908, and for many years was an important addition to the Newlyn School of artists. When the First World War broke out, Munnings enlisted, despite having the use of only one eye owing to an accident in 1899. He became an army horse trainer near Reading and later went to France as an official war artist, attached to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade.
The year 1919 was a major turning-point in all aspects of Munnings’s life; he painted his first racehorse, Poethlyn, the winner of the Grand National, and became an Associate of the Royal Academy. Munnings met Violet McBride, whom he was to marry, and bought Castle House, Dedham, where the Munnings Memorial Trust maintains a permanent exhibition of his pictures. Munnings’s prolific career, spanning over 60 years, brought him honour, with election to the Presidency of the Royal Academy in 1944, a Knighthood in 1945, and a personal award from the Sovereign in 1947, when Munnings was created Knight of the Royal Victorian Order.

 

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