Lamorna Cove, one of the many hauntingly beautiful bays on the southern Cornwall coast is the real subject of this poignant painting, Autumn, Cornwall.
Two beautiful young women gaze, somewhat wistfully, one out at the viewer, the other out to sea. The Channel waters that wash that part of the coast, often called the 'Cornish Riviera', have long been known for their warmth and their un-English blues and this sea is no exception-it is of such a startling blue that it envelops one's senses. It is autumn. The young ladies are well rugged-up and their clothes are fashionable, if bohemian. A long Cornish summer is coming to an end, there is a chill in the air and it won't be long before these same rocks will be lashed by winter storms. The mellow stillness of the painting seems to presage another coming storm. The horrifying events of the Great War are just two years away, a period that will see the demise of a generation of young men, perhaps the same men who dallied with these thoughtful young women. But that is a cloud that remains for now in the future.
Munnings was born in Mendham, Suffolk in 1878 and lived and worked in Suffolk and Norfolk until he moved to Lamorna in 1908. He brought with him to Lamorna a new vitality to the artist's colony that had gathered there and at Newlyn since the 1880s. A bright extrovert, self-opinionated and surrounded by a bevy of pretty young models and students, the thirty-three year old Munnings loved the freedom that came from the remoteness of this western-most part of England. As well, the special qualities of the Cornish light and the strangeness of the rocky coast brought out some of his best work.
He married a fellow artist, Florence Edith Carter-Wood, in 1912. They had met while Florence was visiting her brother who was a student of Stanhope Forbes at Newlyn. The marriage was not happy, and Florence committed suicide in 1914. One should ask whether the subject of Autumn, Cornwall is in fact Florence. Is this one more reason for the pensive, almost sad atmosphere of the painting? Certainly both women bear more than a passing resemblance to Munnings's ill-fated wife.
After his time at Lamorna, Munnings served as an official war artist in France, attached to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. Portraits painted as part of his commission led to his sudden recognition at war's end. From 1919 Munnings achieved national acclaim for paintings of royalty, mounted portraits and race meetings. He settled into the life of a society and sporting painter at Dedham in Suffolk, becoming a Royal Academician in 1926 and president of the Royal Academy in 1944, when he defeated Augustus John. In his later years he became cantankerous and extreme in his views. He accused Stanley Spencer of pornography and tried in vain to have him prosecuted. He died in 1959, having resigned his presidency of the Royal Academy ten years before, following a controversial speech in which he publicly condemned 'modern art'.
Carrick Hill is fortunate to possess a painting produced during Munnings's early sunny years and he described his happy times in Cornwall in his autobiography thus:
There were spots where I could laze and be idle and drowsy enough in Norfolk, but of all places on the right day, I find myself more often longing to be back on those Cornish cliffs, lying in the sun, listening to the incessant sound of surf.