The Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum and Garden Cafe, Dedham

Dedham is a village near where I live. We stumbled upon it a few years ago, when we did a marvellous country walk along its river bank (the Stour). It is an area of outstanding natural beauty that is heavily protected and, historically, always seems to have had residents who care about what happens there. It is Constable country: the artist lived down the road at East Bergholt and all around is the landscape he painted. He went to school in Dedham – you can see where in the square, the Old Grammar School – apparently walking there every morning along the same sort of route we took when we first discovered the village.

Dedham doesn’t have many shops, but it does have probably the best toy shop in the world (more on this another time).

The last time we went, I thought I’d see where we could have some good tea and cake. And this search took me to the Garden Cafe in the Munnings Art Museum (you see how I access culture? Via cake). The art museum wasn’t anything I’d ever seen or come across in Dedham before, and indeed, it is tucked away, nearly a mile’s walk from the village centre and badly signposted once you’re through the park (good playground). At one stage you are in deep Dedham suburbia (I guess this is where the houses that cost less than a million are) and you wonder if you’re in the right place at all. But you are and you keep going and then, there before you is Castle House, where Sir Alfred used to live and where a great part of his paintings are now kept.

(You can drive there, but we walked from Dedham.)

The museum is lovely. I love that children only pay £1 (adults: £6.50). I confess I’d never heard of him. Munnings painted lots of horses, he lost an eye to a bramble bush and went on to become a war artist for the Canadian army. He was controversial, as president of the RA, he made a speech slagging off modernists like Picasso and Matisse, live on BBC radio air. His first wife, Florence, attempted suicide on their wedding night. She killed herself two years later. The film Summer in February, starring him from Downton Abbey and Dominic Cooper, is about this part of his life (I’ve yet to see it, but want to). Florence was expunged from all record of Alfred’s life.

I didn’t come away feeling exactly warm towards him. But nevertheless it was a captivating museum. Although most of the pictures are of horses, my favourite was the bon viveur one above which is called Taggs Island and is displayed above the stairs.

Alfred’s second wife, Violet, had a black pekingese called Black Knight, which she carried everywhere with her. When he died, she had him stuffed and continued to carry him everywhere with her. One of the stewards in the museum remembers her, in the village, asking other customers to hold the stuffed dog, whilst she got money out to complete her transactions. There was even a ‘autobiography’ written by him, Diary of a Freeman (the dog was made a Freeman of the City of London, of course)..Black Knight is still there, stuffed and forever asleep on a cushion, in a glass case in the museum, with a red telephone next to him, presumably so he can order room service, when no-one is looking. My youngest was transfixed by this. Just goes to show that Karl Lagerfeld’s cat, Choupette, isn’t the first pet to chronicle their comings and goings.

The cafe in the garden, next to Alfred’s studio, is lovely. I mean, really first class. The staff were just delightful, the cakes (and you know how I am about cakes) DELICIOUS, all light and airy and even though I didn’t think I wanted them, I managed to eat everything on my plate. We had a coffee and walnut cake and a Victoria sponge, which had just been put out and was giant and multi-layered, the size of one of those pans we have in Italy, to cook pasta for fourteen in.  I didn’t try the food but it looked really good – all sorts of healthy salads and nice looking paninis. I promised the children we’d go back in the autumn to sample lunch, but it was a promise I mostly largely for myself

Do check opening times – of both the museum and the cafe. At the time of writing they were:

“The Café’s opening hours are 10:00am to 5:00pm and the Museum is open 2:00pm to 5:00pm Wednesday – Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays (April to October). Please check in advance if we are open at other times.”

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