Sir Alfred Munnings was known across Britain for his brilliance and perfectionism as a painter of Thoroughbreds, feverishly sketching and practicing on Newmarket's Warren Hill in an attempt to capture the poetry of horses taking flight. But while Munnings sat with his sketchbook at the start of a race, his wife Violet found herself in need of a companion to help pass the afternoons.
Enter a small dog with a big personality.
Lady Munnings had a succession of Pekingese dogs throughout her life, but was particularly enamored with one she acquired in 1946 named Black Knight. Black Knight, who was known around the Munnings house by his nickname of “Pudda,” quickly became a favorite of Lady Munnings, who once proclaimed “he is the reincarnation of a Chinese Emperor and a Ming horse.”
Lady Munnings took him everywhere she could, long before Hollywood made the handbag dog a fashion accessory. Black Knight was small enough he could be concealed in a specially-constructed traveling bag, a purse, or even a fur muff. Pudda seemed to be relatively good at remaining concealed throughout a formal dinner or art exhibition, where Lady Munnings would surreptitiously sneak him bits of food off her plate or allow him a few laps of tea or wine off a saucer when no one was looking. The couple got bolder and bolder about where they brought him, even sneaking Pudda into the Houses of Parliament several times.
Of course, even the quietest dogs are bound to stick their heads out of a bag sooner or later, and people came to expect Lady Munnings might have a stowaway with her at major events. According to Lady Munnings, Pudda was once discovered at a formal dinner at the ancient Guildhall, and rather than ask her to leave, the organizers named him a Freeman of the City of London, a recognition usually given to humans for lifetime career achievement or high international standing.
The Munnings were, by nature of Alfred's work for prominent racing owners, frequently invited from their country home base in Dedham, Essex, to formal events in London and were often guests of royalty. As such, various members of the British royal family took to asking after Pudda, who was said to have gone to Queen Elizabeth's coronation.
All these exploits and more are described in a book “authored” by Black Knight called “Diary of a Freeman” in which Pudda recalls the events he has been to during his early years with Alfred and Violet. Published in 1953, the book includes little sketches from Alfred from the races and horse shows the trio attended. It also describes Pudda's riding education, which evolved to the point Lady Munnings could balance him across the front of her saddle with her and go for a gallop in the hunt fields around their house.
Black Knight's diary also describes his education as a horseplayer, which began with the dog chasing horses at the start of various races where Alfred was sketching, and evolved to the point Violet could read out names from a program or bring Pudda to the walking ring, and bet according to which name or horse he barked at.
“Now, it has got abroad that I spot winners – that I'm a sort of wizard or witchfinder. Of course it's all nonsense,” Pudda wrote in ‘Diary of a Freeman.' “Being of the animal kingdom – canine species – it stands to reason I ought to know something of another species – the horse. Of course I do, and although I am low on the ground, it doesn't signify, because Violet carries me on her arm so that I get the right view of a horse and see its make and shape – heartroom, the look of the head, the eye, and I go far beyond the visible. I'm better than a vet, a sort of psychologist.”
Pudda grew so famous for his handicapping ability that he was a popular figure in the British media in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“Oh such fun, the Press!” reads ‘Diary of a Freeman.' “Tinkle, tinkle goes the phone bell. I sit beside the telephone on the Hall table so I can hear what goes on. Violet picks up the receiver. I hear a far off voice. ‘We are – speaking, can we interview Black Knight? We will motor down.' (I.e. Sixty-five miles from London.)
“That interview, believe it or not, lasted four hours! I did my part and played up. I rounded up seventeen cows. Sat on my horse barebacked; sat by A.J.'s bronze statue of Brown Jack, who for six years won in succession the famous race at Ascot … I was photographed sitting in the golden casket containing the Freedom of the City of Norwich presented to A.J. Those strong young men even moved the furniture in the house to get the pose.”
Black Knight died at the age of nine years and nine months, according to an obituary which ran as a syndicated item in many American papers. Lady Munnings was said to be so distraught that she had the little dog stuffed, and allegedly carried him around in his carrying bag for several more years. He now resides at the Munnings Museum, located at the couple's former home in Dedham.
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