Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - 20th Century British Art

Sir Thomas Monnington (1902-1976)   BIOGRAPHY

Study for Allegory, circa 1924
Framed (ref: 230)

Oil on tracing paper, laid on board, squared for transfer, 12 1/2 x 22 1/2 in. (31.7 x 57.2 cm.)


Exhibited: Inspired by Italy, Exeter Museum and Art Gallery, August - September 1996, (21)

Monnington’s Allegory (Tate Gallery) was the major work of his tenure as Rome Scholar in Decorative Painting. 

 The cartoon and related studies, commenced in the Spring of 1924, occupied the larger part of his second year. He commenced the execution of the painting, which was to occupy his third and final year, in March 1925; it was purchased in Rome, by Jim Ede for the Contemporary Art Society before it was completed, and was presented to the Tate Gallery in 1939. The exact meaning of the Allegory is unclear and Monnington himself remained elusive about it; invited by the Tate to explain it, he replied, The idea is a bit complex and was based on the story of the Garden of Eden, but rather a personal interpretation of it” (letter of 17 May 1953). When pressed, a few years later to elaborate, he answered, “I don’t think this picture has anything to do with the Garden of Eden story, but I am no more able to explain its exact meaning now than I was at the time I painted it. The whole design certainly had a very particular meaning and purpose and was an attempt to express in pictorial form my attitude to life - almost my faith (2nd April 1957). Having to be content with this, the Tate Gallery retitled the picture Allegory - Monnington having always referred to it simply by the title Decoration. Iconogrpahically it contains elements of several myths but most obviously The Garden of Love; specific episodes within the painting are reminiscent of Adam and Eve; Apollo and Daphne; The Fountain of Youth. Luciano Chelles has pointed out that the composition is to some extent an adaptation of Piero della Francesca’s Death of Adam (San Francesco, Arezzo) and reproduces specific elements such as the figure sitting on the ground and the placing of a large tree at the centre of the composition. Ricketts and Shannon, asked by the Faculty of Painting at the British School to report on Monnington’s progress commented that they found Monnington, “keenly alive to the merit of the Masterpieces he had seen in Italy and alive to the technical practises of the Masters” (12.1.25)

Sir Thomas Monnington (1902-1976)

Painter, especially of murals. Born in London, he studied at the Slade School in 1918-23 and was Rome Scholar in 1923-26. He married fellow Rome Scholar Winifred Knights in 1924. Among his public works are a decoration for St Stephen's Hall, Westminster, 1928, and the new Council House in Bristol, 1956. Monnington taught drawing at the Royal Academy Schools, 1931-39, and in 1949 joined the staff of the Slade, whose strong linear tradition marked his own work. Monnington is represented in a number of public galleries, including the Tate, British Museum and Imperial War Museum. He was elected RA in 1938, became its President in 1966 and was knighted in 1967. There was a memorial exhibition at the RA in 1977. Another traveled from the British School at Rome to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter and the Fine Art Society in 1997. From the 1940s Monnington lived in Groombridge, Kent; the local landscape inspired much of his post-war work. Monnington was one of the outstanding draughtsmen of his generation. He had a considerable influence as a teacher (Euan Uglow was among his pupils), and was one of the most effective of the twentieth-century presidents of the RA, turning around the Academy's ailing fortunes. Remarkably he was the first president of the Academy to produce abstract paintings and indeed made no distinction between abstract and figurative art: "Surely what matters is not whether a work is abstract or representative, but whether it has merit. If those who visit exhibitions would come without preconceptions, would apply to art the elementary standards they apply in other spheres, they might glimpse new horizons. They might ask themselves: is this work distinguished or is it commonplace? Fresh and original or uninspired, derivative and dull? Is it modest or pretentious?" (Interview in the Christian Science Monitor, 29.5.67).

Selected Literature: Judy Egerton, Sir Thomas Monnington, Royal Academy of Arts, 1977 Paul Liss, Sir Thomas Monnington, British School at Rome/Fine Art Society plc, 1997

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