Today’s article is about Castle House, once home to the late Sir Alfred Munnings and now known as the Munnings Museum. There is only a little more than a month left that it will be open to the public this year, and will reopen on the first of April to October 31 next year.
This is written by Beth Munnings-Winter , a relative of Sir Alfred Munnings. Thanks your so much Beth for this wonderful insight of the past!
Castle House, the home of Sir Alfred Munnings from 1919 until his death there in 1959 is a place I’ve heard spoken of all my life.
Lady Violet Munnings entertained my parents at Castle House in Dedham the year after her husband’s death – in 1960 – when they found her in the yard, stoking a bonfire of his unfinished paintings (for fear that a forger might lay hands on them and pawn them off as finished originals by Sir Alfred).
Leaving the gardener (who had also been an artistic model for Sir Alfred) in charge of this alarming conflagration, Lady Violet strolled with my parents through the gardens, introducing them to the horses Alfred had loved so well, and made pleasant conversation about the extended family and Alfred’s abiding love of family history (my great-great grandfather was Alfred’s uncle). During the entire visit, Violet held in her arms the stuffed Pekingese dog, “Black Knight”, who had by then been dead for several years. She stroked its lifeless ears, and beseechingly inquired of my father if he believed that dogs go to heaven. He happily replied that yes, he did! When it came time to feed the living dogs, my parents were amused to see that a dish of dog food was also set before the long-departed Black Knight.
After my parents returned home to Canada, my mother kept up a written correspondence with Lady Violet for many years, and I am happy to have the letters of the latter in my possession now. When Lady Munnings conceived the idea of opening the house up to the public, she wrote to my mother, excitedly detailing her plans. Interestingly, in one letter Lady Violet says, “I do not like the word “Museum” – most dull, dreary places”, and I do try to remember this when I speak about Castle House!
Every year until her death in 1971, Lady Violet sent photographic Christmas cards and the latest editions of the house brochures to my parents, and I liked to look at them when I was a child, marveling at how jam-packed the house was with antiques, trophies, memorabilia, books, paintings and drawings. I longed to see this magical place, which looked so eccentrically delightful.
When I finally went to visit it for the first time, in company with my mother in 1976, it was much as it had always been (although it had been painted Suffolk pink in the years since Alfred’s death; thankfully, it has now been returned to the yellow it had been during the Munnings’ residence). Bric-a –brac delightfully filled every nook and cranny, and the immortalized Black Knight sat on his little chair in the front hall, as though awaiting the return of his mistress. In fact, one felt as though Alfred himself might at any moment stride through the front door, throw down his fedora and kick off his boots, mud-spattered from one of the long walks he enjoyed (between bouts of the gout) all his lifetime.
I remember being most struck by the immense size of many of the canvasses, as all I’d ever seen of Sir Alfred’s work had been the small prints that hung on the walls of my childhood home. One in particular caught my breath as I stood in the dark Tudor hallway of the house and gazed up high above me at an enormous canvas. It was a painting of Lady Violet , riding one of her favoured grey hunters, sidesaddle, alongside a stone wall on Exmoor, and the sun’s rays from the skylight above the Georgian staircase, struck it and illuminated it so that it literally glowed. It seemed to come to life before my bedazzled eyes.
Castle House at that time was not as popular a destination as it is now, as the memory of Sir Alfred’s BBC-broadcast diatribe on the evils of Modern Art was still fresh in the art establishment’s mind, and his name as an artist was still firmly being kept from the public eye and ear. I remember that we had the place almost entirely to ourselves, and wandered at will, admiring the plethora of paintings and the furnishings Sir Alfred had himself loved so well. Proximity to the paintings “in the flesh” evoked in me a quite different sensation from the emotions I’d felt when looking at the relatively dull and lifeless prints in our home. My mother, who is an artist in her own right, pointed out to me the clever deftness of Sir Alfred’s brushstrokes and the vibrancy of the colours he employed with such ingenuity.
Below are some of the equine art work that is in the museum’s collections.
Thank you to the the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum for letting me feature Munnings fascinating paintings and to Beth Munnings-Winter! This is definitely on my bucket list of places to go.
Huh? What? Well, I will believe that when I see flying Shetlands !