Sir Alfred Munnings was a famous and successful painter and President of the Royal Academy of Arts, but for a time his wife Violet’s pet Pekingese, Black Knight, was equally famous.  Violet took Black Knight with her everywhere and frequently concealed him in a specially designed handbag with a “window” in the end through which he could observe the goings on.

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“The most famous dog in the world.”  Black Knight in his handbag.  Photo courtesy of The Munnings Art Museum. 

He attended exhibition openings, horse shows, and horse races.  In his black velvet evening bag he was smuggled into formal dinners and receptions.  Eventually the press discovered him and after a photo of Black Knight at a reception at the Prime Minister’s residence made the papers, the public became a bit obsessed with the small black dog.

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“Sir Anthony Eden, myself, and Violet Munnings at a party at the P. Minister’s 10 Downing Street, 1949.”  Photo Courtesy of The Munnings Art Museum.

Readers were able to keep abreast of all of Black Knight’s activities as the newspapers regularly reported on the events he attended, what he dined upon, the people he met, and his tips on the outcomes of horse races.  Violet collected the newspaper articles about him, as well as his photos, in a scrapbook.  Most of the photos in this post are from Black Knight’s scrapbook courtesy of The Munnings Museum which was kind enough to share them.

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A collage of newspaper clippings about Black Knight.  Photo from the back dust jacket of Diary of a Freeman.  The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

His popularity was such that he published an autobiography in which he described his adventures for his fans.  He talks about his activities at home, such as riding the mare Chena, or cuddling on the longest sofa in the library, his favorite room in the house.

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A. J. Munnings, Violet Munnings, and Black Knight.  Photo courtesy of The Munnings Art Museum.

Black Knight’s social calendar was rather full.  He attended many parties and receptions at St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace.  Five different Lords Mayor of London welcomed him as a guest that their banquets, and he was even made an honorary Freeman of the City of London.

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Violet and Black Knight looking through his scrapbook.  Photo courtesy of The Munnings Art Museum.

He was presented to the Queen at the Royal Garden Party, attended the King and Queen’s silver anniversary party at Buckingham Palace, and even attended Princess Elizabeth’s wedding.  According to Black Knight’s account of the event, he stowed away in Violet’s hand muff and was not discovered until she was seated in the Abbey!

He enjoyed attending horse races and would indicate his picks for the winners by barking at them.  He even had his own account with a bookmaker where Violet placed his bets for him.  Black Knight accompanied Violet everywhere for ten years until his death in 1955.  After his death she refused to be parted from him and had him stuffed.

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Black Knight today, on his cushion in Violet’s room.  Photo courtesy of The Munnings Art Museum.

And so he continued accompany her for years afterwards.  Today he resides on a cushion in her room, at the house they lived in, which is now the Munnings Art Museum.

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The Munnings residence, Castle House, now The Munnings Art Museum in Dedham, England.  Photo from the European Museums Network.

If you’d like to read about Black Knight’s exploits and adventures in his own words, his autobiography, The Diary of a Freeman, is available the Main Reading Room here at the Library.  It is quite delightful to read about events from his point of view.

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Black Knight recreating his pose for the portrait that was used as the cover of his book, Diary of a Freeman.  Photo courtesy of The Munnings Art Museum.

The Library also holds numerous books about Sir Alfred Munnings, including his autobiography, which shows the events portrayed in Black Knight’s book from another, taller,  point of view.


Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

 

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Growing up, one of my favorite books was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Like Alice, I would have gladly followed the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole.  I get the same sense of heady adventure from research. Not much is more satisfying than to dive into the proverbial rabbit hole, follow what might seem to be disjointed paths, only to resurface with new connections.

Researching the upcoming loan exhibition, The Chronicle of the Horse in Art, on view from August 26, 2016 through March 26, 2017, has been one of these grand adventures. Several major loans including works by the sporting art masters George Stubbs, Ben Marshall, and John Ferneley, Sr. are coming from Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Yale Center for British Art, Genesee Country Village & Museum, and private lenders across the country.

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Ben Marshall (English, 1768-1835), John Gully (detail), c. 1815, oil on canvas, 13 ¾ x 12 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, by 1975, reproduced on the 5/30/1975 Chronicle of the Horse cover

On the surface the exhibition concept seems straightforward: find the current location of representative artwork reproduced on the covers of  the famed equestrian magazine, The Chronicle of the Horse (CoTH), and request permission for loans. Simple, right? Not when you start to take into consideration that the magazine started featuring artwork on the cover in August 1945 and continued weekly until March 2012. There were approximately 3,400 covers to unearth, and what we found was that many of the rabbit holes led straight back to NSLM’s permanent collection. As a result, several paintings from the NSLM’s permanent collection will be included as well.

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Eric Guide Haupt (American, 1891 – 1984), Portrait of George L. Ohrstrom, Sr. (1894 – 1955), oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of the Ohrstrom Family

Portrait of George L. Ohrstrom, Sr. by Eric Haupt appeared on the 11/18/1955 cover along with an obituary written by Editor Alexander Mackay-Smith on page 2.  Ohrstrom, Sr. had taken ownership of the magazine in 1952 until his passing in November 1955. Mackay-Smith and Ohrstrom, Sr. were also founders of the National Sporting Library in 1954.

Edward Troye (American, 1808 - 1874) American Eclipse, 1834, 1843 Oil on canvas, 25 ¼ x 30 ¼ inches Gift of Mr. George L. Ohrstrom, Jr., c. 1974
Edward Troye (American, 1808 – 1874), American Eclipse, 1834, 1843, oil on canvas, 25 ¼ x 30 ¼ inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Mr. George L. Ohrstrom, Jr., c. 1974

George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. took over his father’s role in both organizations and led each for five decades. Ohrstrom, Jr. was an inveterate sporting art collector. On 6/2/1976, American Eclipse, 1834, painted in 1843 by Edward Troye, appeared on the CoTH cover with the credit “Courtesy of Mr. & Mrs. George L. Ohrstrom and the National Sporting Library.” The reproduction was accompanied by a detailed article by Mackay-Smith about the legendary thoroughbred painted by Troye and other art donations to NSL.

Given the NSLM’s and CoTH’s intertwined histories, these works were not a surprise. Others, however, were. We were not able to allocate the time for what would have conservatively been a two-month, full-time job looking through the bound volumes of the CoTH magazines in the Library lower level.  We instead relied on a finding aid and a list shared by the CoTH to do strategic searches. We found that the descriptive titles for the works on the covers magazine often didn’t match the currently known titles. The Library’s digitization of its microfilm holdings of many of the CoTH issues recently made searching infinitely easier. 

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Alfred J. Munnings (1878-1959), Shrimp with Ponies in the Ringland Hills Near Norwich, c. 1911, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Mrs. Felicia Warburg Rogan, 2008 © Castle House Trust (Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum)

It turns out that one of the most important paintings in NSLM’s collection was reproduced on the 4/19/1957 cover under the title “Welsh Ponies.” Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum provided the image well before Mrs. Felicia Warburg Rogan purchased Sir Alfred Munnings’ Shrimp with Ponies in the Ringland Hills Near Norwich, c. 1911, and later donated it to NSLM.

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Jean Eleanor Bowman (American, 1917 – 1994), Mongo on the Turf at Laurel Racetrack, Maryland with Charles Burr Up, 1964, oil on canvas, 29 x 36 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Jacqueline B. Mars, 2012 © John H. Pentecost

Even a fairly recent donation to NSLM appeared on the 11/13/1964 cover, a portrait of the race horse Mongo with jockey up by Jean Bowman, image courtesy of Mrs. Marion DuPont Scott. An article appeared in the issue about the turf and dirt track champion home-bred at duPont Scott’s Montpelier.

Much like Alice in Wonderland, I find myself waking up in the exact place I started,  refreshed and excited to share the wonderful stories found in the The Chronicle of the Horse, the resulting exhibition, and the research reconnecting the past to the present.

On to the next rabbit hole…

RELATED EVENTS:

NSLM Members are cordially invited to attend a Members’ preview, reception, and gallery talk by George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art Claudia Pfeiffer to celebrate the opening of The Chronicle of the Horse in Art exhibition on Thursday, August 25th from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. To become a member and take part in his event, please contact Frances Monroe at 540.687.6542 ext. 26 or fmonroe@nationalsporting.org.

A public reception will be held on Saturday, August 27th. Join NSLM’s George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art Claudia Pfeiffer, for a coffee reception from 10:00 to 10:30 and then follow her on a custom tour of the exhibition.


pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions.

email: cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org