Monnington, Sir Thomas

(1902 – 1976)

Study for Allegory, c.1924

Oil on tracing paper, laid on board, squared for transfer 


The Artist’s family

Literature: Llewellyn, Sacha, and Paul Liss. Portrait of an Artist. Liss Llewellyn, 2021, p.349.

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

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 dont 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 Francescas 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 Monningtons 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)

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Monnington, Sir Thomas

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


Sir Thomas Monnington
Design for the ceiling of the Mary Harris Memorial Chapel, (pale ground) University of Exeter, 1956