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1949 The Munnings Year

The One Hundred and Eighty-First Summer Exhibition opened on 30 April 1949, with the Annual Dinner held the night before.

The Selection Committee was chaired by the President, Alfred Munnings—combative, pugnacious, and contemptuous of anything which smacked of modern art. But how characteristic were his views of the time? 

The Selection Committee in those days consisted of the ten members of Council, plus additional associate members who were co-opted to help, not least with the selection of works of architecture and printmaking (and possibly to try them out for full membership): Henry Lamb, then aged sixty-six, a successful portrait painter who had originally trained as a doctor at Manchester School of Medicine and Guy’s and was the younger brother of Walter Lamb, the then Secretary; Robert Buhler, much younger (only thirty-three), half Swiss, trained at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich and Basel and was now a tutor at the Royal College of Art; Maurice Lambert, then aged forty-eight, older brother of the composer Constant Lambert, was elected an ARA in 1941; Sir Hubert Worthington, who had done a great deal of restoration work in Oxford before the war and in the Temple after, and was a former President of the RIBA; and Robert Austin was to take charge of the selection of prints. 

Explore the 1949 catalogue

The Royal Academy in the post-war period has been regarded as consisting of dinosaurs only, based on the views of Alfred Munnings when he was President, and the inherited hostility of Roger Fry and the Bloomsbury Group who regarded everything about the Academy as impossibly philistine. But the membership of the Selection Committee appears more middle ground—certainly not avant-garde, but representative of the more mainstream, historically minded, and realist art of Britain between the wars, rather than the more European-minded modernism, including abstraction, which became dominant, but not immediately, afterwards.

There were 11,013 works submitted. Only eight works were accepted unequivocally, 3,201 as doubtful, which means they were delivered, but with no guarantee that they would be hung. There were 201 oil paintings entered by RAs and ARAs.1

Looking at the works included in The Royal Academy Illustrated 1949, the character of the Exhibition was indeed very conservative, dominated by portraits, including a portrait of George VI by Denis Fildes, a strong portrait of Lord Goddard by James Gunn (Fig. 1), and portraits of the young Princess Elizabeth and Duke of Edinburgh by Edward Halliday, alongside a beautifully gloomy portrait of John Minton by Robert Buhler ARA, and a good portrait by Rodrigo Moynihan, a member of the Euston Road School, who had recently become Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art.  

Is there anything to indicate the presence of the avant-garde? There is a surrealist work in the style of Bosch by Richard Eurich, together with Marine Harvest (Fig. 2), a fantastic scene of a harbour in a storm (now in the Ferens Art Gallery), some less conventional landscapes by Edward Bawden and John Nash, an asymmetric interior titled He Put Her in the Acid Bath, Miss by the young Carel Weight, and a pub scene, Brown Ale, by Ruskin Spear.

It cost 1s. 6d. to visit, or 5 shillings for a season ticket. Over the summer, 154,090 people came, a perfectly respectable number, but far fewer than in the 1930s, when crash barriers had been erected to control the crowds.  

How visitors responded to the 1949 Summer Exhibition is revealed by an account in the Mass Observation Archive, even if it is coloured by the investigator’s obvious class prejudices.

The majority of visitors were said to be of A–B class “with a very low sprinkling of C”. Their age was fifty and over, and apparently the women were “beautifully dressed, the men with fine military carriage”. There were also:

a fair proportion of young people, both M + F in their late teens & early 20s all very B’ish [British] & arty in appearance, & while most people enter the exhibition singly or in pairs, & file past the works making little or no comments but frequently referring to catalogues, the young people tend to come in bunches of three or more, ejaculating “Did you see the portrait of the woman with the stupid dress—awful isn’t it?” or, “Perfectly sweet”, “Charming”, and such like remarks.

At 3.45 on the day that these observations took place, the investigator (L. Breehan) watched:

two elderly women both dressed in black; the younger approx 50 years of age & the older one round about her 60s. They’re B class, well spoken, but look as if they’ve fallen on bad times if one is to judge by their dress & general appearance.  

He or (from internal evidence, more likely) she recorded their conversation as they wandered round:

That’s by Alfred Munnings—he’s given himself a lot of publicity by what he said.
And that’s another one by him it reminds me of point-to-point races—it’s quite good.
He looks so absorbed.
It’s curious heavy colouring.
More in the artist’s imagination, they’re all really for a bit of a blow up.
They’ve got the detail of the dress well.
I suppose it’s very good but I should hate to live in those houses.
That’s a corner of a dress designer’s studio, I don’t like it at all.
It’s by Dame Laura Knight.
She’s a great artist. Her painting of the Nuremburg Trial last year was most striking.
Look at the cabbage & the Church in between.
It doesn’t look a bit like Oxted.

Gallery II

There’s another Munnings here—dreadful. He sounded drunk the other day.
This is one by Churchill I like the effect of the sun on the water.

The investigator ended by asking one of the ladies for her general impression of the exhibition. She said:

I’ve been coming for years—there’s not many here today because the papers didn’t give it much of a write-up, also people are keeping away thinking there’d be a rush—that people will flock to see it. That puts people off a lot. I’ve been here on the different years when it’s been that crowded that you couldn’t move. Today’s quiet—very quiet—to what it generally is.2

The Exhibition in 1949 may have been a turning point: the year that the traditionally conservative formula of the Summer Exhibition, dominated by portraiture, part of the social season, and with an obvious mood of deference of the monarchy, ceased to work. Alfred Munnings’ speech at the Annual Dinner, which was broadcast on the radio, consolidated a view of the Academy as insuperably conservative.  

But looking at the art itself, without the prejudices of a later period, one can see that the Exhibition, was, as it always had been before and has been most of the time ever since, merely representative of the broad church of the art practice of the day, traditionally aimed at a conservatively minded middle market, and some of it more avant-garde.

  1. Annual Report from the Council of the Royal Academy (London, 1950), 28.↩︎

  2. I am indebted for these quotations, as well as much other information and advice, to Mark Pomeroy, the Academy’s archivist, who has discovered that this is the only year in which visitors’ reactions have been recorded.↩︎

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Explore the 1949 catalogue