by Roderick Conway Morris

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Imperial War Museum, London
Oppy Wood, 1917, Evening by John Nash, 1919

Brothers in Arms

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 5 June 2021


On the morning of 30 December 1917, during the Battle of Cambrai, John Nash along with eighty other fellow infantrymen taking part in a counter-attack climbed out of a snow-bound trench at Welsh Ridge near Marcoing on the Western Front. Immediately raked by enemy machine-gun fire, with 'all officers killed or wounded and only one sergeant left', Nash was one of only a dozen men to survive the action unscathed.

The experience gave rise in the following year to two of his greatest oils: 'Over the Top: 1st Artists' Rifles at Marcoing, 30 December 1917', one of a handful of officially commissioned works depicting a specific moment in the conflict; and the tranquil pastoral evening scene 'The Cornfield', painted, in Nash's words, 'at sheer relief at being alive and in the English countryside'. Other striking images of the War include the haunting canvas 'Oppy Wood, 1917, Evening'.

These works, along with around three hundred oils, watercolours, drawings, wood engravings and lithographs, from a career that spanned nearly seven decades, are now on display at the Towner Gallery in Eastborne, in the first major retrospective of the artist for over half a century. The exhibition shares its title, 'John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace', with the first comprehensive study of Nash's life and works by Andy Friend, co-curator with Sara Cooper of the show, which will travel on to Compton Verney in Warwickshire in October.

Unlike his brother, the Surrealist and landscape painter Paul Nash, who was four years older and trained at the Slade, John never received any formal art education. However, by the time he was 20, in 1913, he began featuring in shows in London, Brighton and Leeds and catching the eye of the critic Frank Rutter, who later recorded being impressed in John's work by 'an extraordinary innocence of vision and sense of delight and wonderment in all seen and painted'.

With the outbreak of war it became no longer viable to make a living as an artist and John took a job first in a factory, then an office. In 1915, he attempted to join up, but was rejected as 'unfit', which left him feeling 'like a sheep going to slaughter & reprieved by the butcher's whim'. His more established and better connected brother, Paul, had already been accepted for officer training and moved on to become an Official War Artist.

When John was finally enlisted in 1916, it was as a private. Paul visited him one day near the Front in his chauffeur-driven car and John later recorded that his brother never appreciated how very different their experiences of the war had been and had 'no conception of the realities of being an ordinary soldier'.

John's application to become a War Artist was finally granted in 1918. But as one in the 'other ranks' he had not been allowed to make drawings or sketches of any kind while in the trenches, so unlike Paul he had to rely on his well-attested talent of close observation and extraordinary powers of recall. And when John's war works were displayed, a veteran of the Marcoing action said of Over The Top that 'it immediately recalled in every detail the early morning scene on Welsh Ridge on December 30th, 1917'.

John first met Christine Kühlenthal, a student at the Slade, shortly before the War. She was the daughter of a German family comfortably settled in England. They shared interests beyond art - both were accomplished pianists and country lovers - and their friendship blossomed into a love affair. With John's being sent back to the Front no longer a threat 'for the forseeable', they married in May 1918. near Christine's family home in Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire. They agreed that even after formalizing their relationship both should be free to have 'other loves', an unconventional arrangement that survived nearly six decades of marriage, she continuing to have affairs with both men and women and he with other women.

Christine's journals and the couple's letters have proved an invaluable source for Andy Friend's excellent book accompanying the exhibition, and he has been assiduous in untangling the complex ramifications of Nash's and Christine's extramarital excursions. Christine was considerably better trained technically than John and showed real talent, but from the start she decided that his career should take precedence and, as Friend amply demonstrates, her support was a vital element in his fulfilling his gifts and forging a successful artistic career.

'John Nash lives in the country,' wrote John Rothenstein, then director of the Tate in 1956, 'he is a life-long and single minded lover of landscape'. And, as Andy Friend points out, half his work as a painter can be traced back to places within a quarter of an hour's walk of the three successive cottages where he and Christine lived, in Whiteleaf and Meadle in Bucks and Bottengoms Farm near Wormingford on the Essex-Suffolk border. However, every year he also made regular expeditions to further flung locations such as Norfolk, Dorset, Cornwall, Wales, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Skye and latterly to Provence.

During the 1920s he also showed 'a growing inclination towards a close up view of things', finding 'half a haystack' as interesting as 'a wide stretch of country'. This led to a parallel career as one of the 20th-century's most important botanical painters and contributions to numerous publications in this field. Among these were classics such as his 'Poisonous Plants' (1927), 'English Garden Flowers' (1948) and 'The Artist Plantsman' (1974), most of the text for which he completed in a single day before his death three years later.

Despite the Wall Street Crash in 1929, Nash's one-man show in London the following year was 'a sell-out'. In those troubled times a critic writing in The Observer commented that Nash 'seems to approach Nature with a serene peace of mind and finds restful foliage of luxuriant trees, the sleeping waters of forest ponds, the quiet harbours at eventide, or the homely shapes of simple wild flowers easily adjustable to his abundant store of formalized conceptions'.

The frontispiece of the catalogue featured his oil 'Yarmouth Docks', which the newspaper's critic singles out for special praise, not least for its mellowness and 'harmoniously subdued range of pinks and greys'. However, by the end of the decade the artist was to find himself in the far from tranquil setting of a dockyard under attack by massed German bombers.

Nash was one of the few painters to serve as a War Artist in both World Wars. He originally volunteered for the Observer Corps, but thanks to Sir Kenneth Clark was recruited as a painter and dispatched to the naval dockyard at Devonport. This time, in the uniform of an Honorary Royal Marine Captain, he was free to record whatever he wished. But he was constantly interrupted by the necessity to return salutes and, having been reported by suspicious dockyard workers for 'making plans', with demands to produce his identity papers. This culminated with the artist being arrested at the seaplane base and marched off under armed guard.

Despite the obstacles, Nash produced a number of memorable works. But he was clearly somewhat relieved to be moved on to the Swansea Docks. There, caught in the middle of a major bombing raid, he spent the night taking part in the firefighting, an experience that resulted in 'Dockyard Fire' (1940), which has been described 'as radical a work as any produced in the Second World War.' The artist was even happier when he secured 'a hush hush job', applying his skills to deception and camouflage in preparation for the D-Day landings.

Unlike Paul Nash, who was considered a leading British modernist and exhibited at the Surrealist Exhibition in Paris in 1938, John remained on the periphery of fashionable metropolitan artistic circles and remained little affected by modernist movements in contemporary art. Nevertheless, in 1967 he was accorded a retrospective at the Royal Academy, displaying over 250 pieces, an unprecedented tribute for a living artist at that time.

A number of critics during the course of Nash's career commented on the directness and intensity of his vision. Of himself he said: 'I don't look for more than the reality but reality does move one and at times even startle one'.

Nash was always a self-effacing artist and reluctant to put himself centre stage. Yet his work does convey something of the man. As a more recent critic, Christopher Neve, perceptively observed: 'In the honest surfaces of the pictures, it is fair to detect an undertow of loneliness, even of melancholy… the only figure in the landscape is Nash himself, the viewer, and the degree of introspection implied by the paintings makes the possibility of intrusion by other people almost alarming.' And it is such elusive qualities that also contribute to making his work so engaging and absorbing.

John Nash: Landscape of Love and Solace; Towner Gallery, Eastborne, 17 May - 26 September 2021; Compton Verney, Warwickshire, 23 October - 2 January 2022; The Landscape of Love and Solace by Andy Friend (Thames & Hudson (£30)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024