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An Artist’s Residence

The Munnings Art Museum on the outskirts of the pretty village of Dedham on the Suffolk/Essex border, is quite possibly the friendliest museum I have ever been to. It’s the home artist Sir Alfred Munnings shared with his wife Violet for forty years up until his death in 1959 and is now open to the public, welcoming more than 7,000 visitors each year.

Munnings Museum, Dedham, external photographed by David Burton-2

 

Often referred to as one of England’s finest equine artists, Sir Alfred also painted many landscapes and portraits and made his fortune painting portraits of wealthy clients, often with their horses.

A controversial figure, he was outspoken and critical of contemporary art and detested modern painters of the time such as Cezanne and Picasso. He was described by his friend James Wentworth Day as a man “who could be as roisterous as he could be cantankerous, as gentle as he could be rasping, as poetic as he could be earthy”.

Flooded with light, the rooms in Sir Alfred’s home are filled with his furniture and artwork and are warm and welcoming, encouraging visitors to wander through them at a leisurely pace, soaking up the atmosphere.

Helpful and knowledgeable volunteer stewards are on hand to answer visitors’ questions and they provide snippets of information about what life must have been like when the Munnings’ were in residence. I learned about their love of antiques and the collection of mismatched dining room chairs which Sir Alfred purchased whenever he had some spare cash.

On noticing an unusual lampshade on a side table, I was told how, in 1919, Sir Alfred’s friend Dame Laura Knight during a visit at Christmas, hand painted the lampshade in the living room. A lovely addition to the room and clearly a reminder of a treasured friendship for Sir Alfred: “I recall Laura now, sitting on an ottoman, painting figures of the Russian Ballet on a lampshade in coloured inks” he said. “The lampshade flourishes yet, sound as ever in my drawing room….switching on the light, I see figures of ballet girls, harlequins, dancers, and remember Laura as she sat with her brushes by the fire during that Christmas of long ago.”

The thoughtfully curated collection of work in the exhibition space at the back of the house gives visitors a glimpse into Munnings’ creative process; how he sketched his initial drawings and then filled them in, changing elements to create an appealing composition to his work.

The garden studio is perhaps the most interesting part of the museum and it feels like a very personal space. Sir Alfred’s paint-splattered artist smock, well-used palette and paintbrushes, the tubes of paint, chalks and bottles of ink all sit, as if waiting for their owner’s return.

Our visit was topped off with a generous slice of cake and refreshing cup of tea in The Garden Cafe which adjoins the studio, where we enjoyed the scenic views over neighbouring fields with sheep and, appropriately enough, a couple of horses.

The Munnings Art Museum is open from April to the end of October | Wednesday to Sunday : 2pm – 5pm. The Garden Café is open: 10am – 5pm (do check the website for the most up to date information, when planning your visit).

Events at Munnings Art Museum:

There is a lovely programme of events throughout the season at the museum and also sometimes outside of the normal opening times. These range from lectures, special guided tours, festival events and painting courses. Please see the events and workshops page of the museum website.

Where to stay

If you want to spend some time in the area, which is in the heart of ‘Constable Country’ in the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty,  what about staying in a romantic cottage?  There are several cottages run by The Grove Cottages, which are conveniently placed for exploring this spot.

The Munnings Art Museum | Castle Hill | Dedham | Colchester | Essex CO7 6AZ

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Written by Mark



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