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Sir Alred Munnings Museum in Dedham

PUBLISHED: 10:20 05 June 2013

Essex-artist Sir Alfred Munnings, a former president of the Royal Academy of Art in London, has long been regarded as one of East Anglia’s greatest artists. Renowned for his drawings and paintings of horses, he was much-associated with hunting scenes and racing, with a lot of his work being centred around Newmarket.

Now a new film is being released which shows a different side to his character. Summer in February, which is released this month, shows AJ Munnings as a young man embroiled in a three-way love affair. Set between 1912-13, it covers the period when Munnings was living in Cornwall as part of an artistic community. Life seems great. It appears to be one long, hot, golden summer, away from London and the cares of the world, until the charismatic Munnings falls in love with promising young artist Florence Carter-Wood who just happens to have also caught the eye of his best friend, Gilbert Evans.

The film stars Dominic Cooper as the dashing and handsome AJ Munnings, Emily Browning as the headstrong Carter-Wood and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as land agent Gilbert Evans.

The film has been produced by East Anglian film-maker Pippa Cross, whose father Robert Cross founded the Ipswich Film Theatre. Pippa has had an extensive film career starting with My Life Foot, which she commissioned when she was head of production at Granada, as well as discovering Paul Greengrass making Sunday Bloody Sunday. She also cast Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair and has worked with Tom Wilkinson and Sean Bean in the gangland thriller Essex Boys.

The subject matter of her films maybe different, but they all share a common strength in good storytelling. ‘My films tend to be different because after I have spent 18 months bringing a story to the screen, I want to do something completely different. For example my next film is called Desert Dancer – about a woman in Iran where dancing is illegal.’

At the moment Pippa is dealing with the post-production for Summer in February which has included forging ties with the Castle House Trust, Munnings’ archive based at his old home in Dedham.

Pippa and trust chairman James Johnston both comment that the film allowed audiences to explore another, less familiar, side to the artist’s personality and to his art. Summer in February tells the story of a younger, brasher Munnings.

It’s also an era when Munnings hadn’t yet become so associated with horses. He was painting what he saw around him and at that time it was the Cornish countryside. But the arrival of the film fits perfectly with the opening of The Munnings Museum at Castle Museum for the 2013 season.

‘There is a collection of about 600 paintings which get rotated and put on display in different exhibitions over the years,’ explains James. ‘We only have space to show about 200 at any one time, so there is plenty of opportunity to refresh the exhibition space at regular intervals. We have three new exhibitions for this year, one of which is devoted to paintings from Cornwall which tie in completely with the Summer in February theme.’

James explains how the works reveal a young painter revelling in his growing mastery of his abilities. ‘I think what they do is remind people of the breadth of his talent. I think, because in his later works he became very well known for painting horses, people tend to categorise him as a sporting artist, but he was an incredibly talented painter who tackled a wide range of subjects.’

Munnings is described as a very determined individual who overcame a disability to pursue his dream of becoming a professional artist. He lost the sight in his right eye at the age of 20, but this did not deter him in his desire to be an artist. Pippa was certainly aware that the artists used on the film to replicate Munnings’ paintings came away with a new sense of respect for the artist.

‘I think he painted with quite a modern eye,’ adds Pippa. ‘I know the two artists we used to reproduce the paintings for the film had a lot more admiration for him at the end than they did when they started. They admire his brush work and his choice of colour.’

Munnings became a familiar figure around Dedham, where he lived. His works became very collectable, even if his reputation suffered in art circles. His later career was overshadowed by his outspoken resignation from the Royal Academy in 1949 in which he condemned the rise of modernism and claimed that the influence of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso had corrupted art.

James continues: ‘I think what the Summer in February film and what the exhibition of Cornish paintings which we are staging this summer does is remind people that there was more to Munnings than horses.’

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