Authored by: WAG Staff on March 2, 2019
British Impressionist artist Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959) became widely known for his paintings of horses. Munnings wanted to join the Army in 1914, but he did not see from his right eye and was denied on medical grounds. After working as an equine examiner, he went on to be one of 100 artists commissioned by the Canadian War Memorial Fund to record the Canadian Forces during WWI. He painted the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and Forestry Corps in France, which led him to the Western Front. Munnings portraits, set in Europe’s great battlegrounds, depict countless insights into life during the Great War.
In 1899, he was inducted into the Royal Academy of Arts and in 1919, had 44 works spanning his career included in the Canadian War Memorials Exhibition. A century later in 2019, London's National Army Museum (NAM) endeavoured to recreate the monumental show. However, a handful the paintings were nowhere to be found, including that of Brigadier-General Robert Paterson’s horse Peggy.
Although most of the paintings were returned to Canada after the war, and eventually displayed at the Canadian War Museum, the exhibition curator suspected that some may have been given to their subjects.
In late November 2018, UK's Evening Standard published an article calling for anyone with information on the missing paintings to come forward. An archivist at the Shilo, Manitoba Military base recognized the artwork from having seen it at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Shortly thereafter, WAG Collections Manager Nicole Fletcher received an email from a curator at the NAM, and confirmed that Peggy had indeed returned to Winnipeg with Brigadier-General Paterson.
“The General’s children, Mrs. R.H. Tarr and Mr. John D. Paterson, donated the work to the Gallery in 1984,” says Fletcher. “Written correspondence denotes their strong attachment to the piece, which they sent back and forth to their respective residences every two years. Although it must have been difficult for them to part with a work so dear to them, their generosity enabled more art-lovers to enjoy the painting for its artistic merit and historical value. It has been exhibited numberous times at the WAG.”
As the international shipment of a work belonging to the WAG collection requires over six months of preparation, the Gallery offered to send a reproduction of the work to the NAM, where an empty frame hung in place of the mystery painting. For the first time since 1919, Munnings works are now reunited in a celebration of equine beauty.
“The artist originally intended to paint the General on his horse and even made some sketches of them both,” adds Fletcher. “However, being on the Front, the General didn’t have time to sit for the painting.”
To read more about Munnings work, the 1919 Royal Academy exhibition and the search for Peggy, see the NAM website, read the November and February Evening Standard articles, and coverage by Horse Talk NZ. The 2013 film Summer in February portrays Munnings in his early years.
The exhibition at the NAM, London National Army Museum's Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918, is on view until March 3, 2019.
Pictured: Sir Alfred J. Munnings. Peggy, 1918. Oil on canvas. 51 x 61 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Gift of Mrs. R.H. Tarr and Mr. John D. Paterson, G-84-352. Photo: Ernest Mayer