Monnington, SIR (Walter) Thomas (1902–1976), artist, was born in Westminster 2 October 1902, the younger son of Walter Monnington, barrister, and his wife, Catherine Brown. He grew up in Sussex, where he attended preparatory school, but developed heart trouble at the age of twelve. Invalided for a year, he set himself to draw and paint. Later he spent eighteen months at a farm school near Ross-on-Wye, a period congenial to his fundamentally practical turn of mind. In January 1918 he entered the Slade School.

At the Slade Henry Tonks [q.v.] had a decisive influence on Monnington's development, particularly through his insistence that artists should be as objective as possible—like Ingres, ‘who always drew as nearly as possible what he saw in front of him’. Encouraged by Tonks, Monnington specialized in decorative painting, and in 1922 won the scholarship in decorative painting offered by the British School at Rome.

Monnington spent most of the years 1922–5 in Italy. Artists of the quattrocento deeply influenced him, particularly Piero della Francesca, to whose mathematical principles and muted colours he instinctively responded. A reproduction of a single authoritative figure from one of the Arezzo frescoes was to hang in Monnington's house all his life.

In 1924 Monnington married the artist Winifred Margaret, daughter of Walter Henry Knights, sugar merchant. She had preceded Monnington at the Slade and the British School at Rome; her meticulous style influenced his work for the next decade. Monnington's chief work in Italy was a large tempera ‘Allegory’, purchased by the Contemporary Art Society and presented to the Tate Gallery. This picture made his early reputation.

From 1925 to 1937 the Monningtons lived in London, first in Putney and then in a studio flat in Tonks's house in The Vale, Chelsea. Monnington taught part-time at the Royal College of Art and later in the Royal Academy Schools. He was involved between 1926 and 1937 with other artists, including Sir David Cameron [q.v.] , Sir George Clausen [q.v.] , A. K. Lawrence [q.v.] , Sir William Rothenstein [q.v.] , and Colin Gill, in two major decorative schemes, for St. Stephen's Hall, Westminster, and for the new Bank of England designed by Sir Herbert Baker [q.v.] . Monnington's contributions are distinguished by their austere linear style. Meanwhile he completed (1931) a ‘Supper at Emmaus’ for a reredos in Bolton parish church.

In the early 1930s Monnington received commissions for portraits of eminent contemporaries, including Sir James Barrie [q.v.] , Sir Joseph Thomson [q.v.] , Stanley Baldwin (later Earl Baldwin of Bewdley) [q.v.] , and Earl Jellicoe [q.v.] . As a portraitist Monnington was objective, accurate and, since he was incapable of an ingratiating line, often devastatingly candid.

In 1931 Monnington was elected ARA. After Tonks's death in 1937, the Monningtons moved to Groombridge, Sussex, Monnington's home for the rest of his life; but his work now faltered, and he envied other professions. Despite his lack of training, physics and higher mathematics deeply interested him. He liked to gaze on pylons, radio transmitters, and television masts; he loved cars and fast, accurate driving, and took flying lessons. His election as RA in 1938 seemed to Monnington himself an unreal event; as his diploma work he deposited ‘Piediluco’, an Umbrian landscape painted fifteen years earlier.

In May 1939 Monnington joined the Ministry of Defence's camouflage team, and for the next four years was chiefly responsible for designing camouflage for aircraft production airfields. He threw himself into this with energy, indeed with relief. From 1943 he flew as an official war artist with a Yorkshire training squadron and later with light Mitchell bombers over Germany. He spent winter 1944–5 in Holland with the 2nd Tactical Air Force, drawing pioneer mobile radar equipment.

After the war, Monnington found it impossible to return to his former representational work. He taught at Camberwell School of Art until 1949, then at the Slade until 1967. Winifred Knights died 7 February 1947. Later that year Monnington married Evelyn Janet, daughter of Bernard Hunt, mining engineer and silver prospector. Monnington had one son by each marriage. His second marriage proved very happy; but for a while he produced little work. Contemporaries, observing his sparse Royal Academy exhibits between 1946 and 1953, believed he had ‘dried up’; in fact he was essaying new directions.

Monnington's early work and the very different geometric paintings of his last twenty-five years are linked by his consistent interest in Piero della Francesca's mathematical principles. The metamorphosis was slow, and accompanied by periods of waning self-confidence. A commission in 1953 to paint the ceiling of the conference hall in Bristol's new Council House provided just the stimulus he needed. A suggestion by the Bristol city fathers that he should do ‘something connected with the Merchant Adventurers’ fell on deaf ears. Monnington's design instead symbolizes twentieth-century progress in nuclear physics, electronics, aeronautics, and biochemistry. The Bristol ceiling (over 4,000 square feet) is one of the largest painted ceilings in Britain, and one of the few painted in true fresco technique; it was completed in 1956. In 1959 he began fourteen ‘Stations of the Cross’ for Brede parish church.

In the 1960s most of Monnington's works were geometric designs. He had become a fellow of University College, London, in 1957; in 1964 he completed two murals, painted in polyvinyl acetate, for the University of London Students' Union. ‘Square Design’ (1966) was purchased for the Tate Gallery under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest. All Monnington's geometric paintings were based on drawings as exact and fastidious as his earlier representational studies.

Monnington was elected president of the Royal Academy on 6 December 1966; he was knighted the following year, and in 1968 presided over the Academy's bicentenary celebrations. He proved himself a popular president, and was annually re-elected. He was chiefly responsible for opening the treasures of the Academy's private rooms to the public; but exhibitions such as ‘Big Paintings for Public Places’, 1969, and ‘British Sculptors '72’ demonstrated equal concern for living artists. He continued his lively interest in the Academy Schools, and contributed to this Dictionary the notice of Sir Walter Russell, under whom he himself had first taught there. He was a warm-hearted man, and a shrewd and perceptive teacher, who well understood what Tonks called ‘the difficulties of doing’. It was characteristic of Monnington that on Christmas Eve he should telephone the Academy night watchman to make sure he was not lonely.

The presidency added to his long commitments to the British School at Rome (1926–72) and the National Art Collections Fund (1941–76), left Monnington little time for painting, though he himself remarked in 1972 that its complexities were ‘in some ways less difficult than trying to paint’. Monnington died in office in London 7 January 1976.

Sources

The Times, 8 January 1976; Drawings and Paintings by Sir Thomas Monnington PRA, Royal Academy exhibition, 1977 (the catalogue includes an essay on ‘Monnington, the Teacher and the Man’ by Lawrence Gowing); Imperial War Museum archives; private information.

JUDY EGERTON

Original date of publication: 1986