If you like Downton Abbey you will love the lushly photographed film Summer in February. Set in Cornwall in the early 20th century, it has Dominic Cooper playing the bohemian young painter Alfred Munnings, later to become crusty old Sir Alfred Munnings PRA.
For all its visual beauty however, this film tells a dark tale of the suicide of Munnings’s first wife, Florence Carter-Wood, and Cooper plays Munnings to satanic effect. This true story is not to be found in the official histories – there is no trace of a first wife in the biographical pages of the website of the Munnings Museum in Dedham, nor in Munnings’s three volumes of autobiography. The film is based on the eponymous novel by Jonathan Smith, in turn based on the diaries of Munnings’s rival for Florence, Gilbert Evans, played by Dan Stevens of Downton fame.
The Royal Academy becomes the setting for Summer in February, starring, from left, Dan Stevens, Emily Browning, and Dominic Cooper as Alfred Munnings.
The action takes place in the Cornish beauty spot Lamorna Cove, in 1912-14 when Munnings, already successful by his early 30s (he was to be elected ARA in 1914), left his native Suffolk and joined the artists’ colony there. He meets Florence Carter-Wood, an aspiring artist rebelling against her aristocratic background, well-cast in Emily Browning. Fascinated by bad-boy Munnings, she is also attracted to the staid and solid Evans, the local land agent. Naturally she marries Munnings, in spite of being aware of his dalliances with his models, as well as his arrogant personality. Realising her error, she attempts suicide on her wedding day but survives. After two years of a marriage she has refused to consummate, she poisons herself and dies.
This film plangently evokes a corner of British art and social history in that last golden moment before the First World War. It delivers what some may see as an unnecessary kick to an artist whose critical reputation is already on the floor, although not his prices. Yet it puts on the map a woman who aspired to break from the gilded cage, but who fell victim to a combination of class, convention, sexual ignorance and male chauvinism.
To coincide with the film the excellent Penlee House museum in Penzance has an exhibition focusing on art in Lamorna at that time (until 8 June). It brings to life the people in the story, and includes portraits of Florence, among them the famous one of her on horseback by Munnings himself, that he gave to Evans after her death.