September 20, 2019 9:08 am Published by


I coveted my first painting by John Tunnard in 1969; it was a large important work. I simply did not have the where-with-all to purchase it for the £200 price tag. Some four years later I bought the more modest, but arguably more lyrical Prospect, 1959. Since then I have consistently plucked paintings from the market, from each period of the artist’s life, excepting his early representational period. I now own over twenty, and have sold a dozen more. By buying works by an artist regularly, over a lengthy period of time, I am instinctively responding to the painter. It is his spirit within the works with which I feel an affinity. We would have been friends.

From within John Tunnard, three themes regularly surface: a love for nature and the abiding landscape; an earth rhythm, such as may be found in Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, perpetually beating with the pulse of the jazz drummer; and an inquisitive bent for mathematics and science.

Few artists succeed in their search for the means to express their inner impulses; there is no greater frustration than to feel, but fail to communicate. John Tunnard does not seem to have suffered thus. Intelligence and intuition (and, without doubt, luck) led him, at the Royal College of Art, to develop the expressive technique which secured his nickname “Texture Tunnard”.

Traditional methods of painting change with fashion and artistic revolution. In the Eighteenth Century technical skill was expressed with weight of paint and calligraphic brush strokes; in the Nineteenth Century this technique metamorphosed into the application of thin translucent glazes of pure colour, which created a smooth surface beneath which a depth of multicolored layers glow like stained glass windows. The Impressionists changed all that. They loved the play of light on the surface and their painting methods reflected this. They painted rapidly using opaque colours; there is no depth here – light cannot penetrate the surface. And in Britain, at the turn of the century, Joseph Southall and the young Maxwell Armfield introduced the ancient art of painting in egg-tempera; a painstaking process. In the 1930’s Ben Nicholson gave us the concept of scoring through the final paint layers in fine lines to expose the ground of prepared white gesso.

Tunnard seems to have absorbed this history and from it developed a highly personal and individual technique: a thoroughly modern combination creating the craft with which he expressed his love for the land. He absorbed the expressive nature of egg tempera with the dry, detailed, meringue-like surface that it provides. He built up the gesso layers into textures, using different surfaces for different areas of the painting. He applied paint to these surfaces, rubbed back certain regions to the gesso ground or to the pre-applied colour, floated additional paint over and built new strata. The result is a multi-textural surface, often scored through to the white ground beneath with straight lines and musical rhythms.

John Tunnard was a unique man of his time. He was a visionary landscape artist, an intuitive painter of the heartbeat of nature, often fused with the vibrancy of modern scientific adventure. When placed alongside Paul Nash, the greatest poetic painter of the age, whose vision of the land is an intellectual, metaphysical poem, John Tunnard’s interpretation is of a simpler nature, but no less expressive for it: an earthy, natural, rhythmic observation of the nature of the environment in which modern man plays his part.

Like many of his contemporaries, his paintings reflect the epoch; times of fear, despair, uncertainty, boredom, hope, excitement. Politically, the 1930’s were years in which poverty and the rise of Fascism played major roles and which culminated in the Spanish Civil War; an event so shocking as to cover the Western World in heart-rending despair. From an artistic viewpoint in Britain, however, the 1930’s burned with electric excitement. They heralded the advent of two expressive new artistic languages: Abstract Modernism championed by Ben Nicholson, and Surrealism, championed by its originators. The ensuing battles between the two factions produced an unparalleled stimulus for artists. At the end of the decade, the advent of the Second World War had seemed inevitable and paved the way for six years of boredom and poor food; the population trapped within the Islands. A positive side to the conflict was the heightened sense of community that those left at home felt. The artistic commune of St Ives, in far off Cornwall, thought that they had isolated themselves from the horrors of war but they could not be insulated from the all-pervasive atmosphere of the times.

John Tunnard spent his war years as a coast guard’s look-out, surveying a natural seascape that he was born to. In his paintings of the period that reflect this vista, whilst the observer perceives the glittering surface of the sea, the cliffs loom threateningly and the colour is monochromatic. This lack of colour is a symptom of the war years that Tunnard shares with many artists of his generation. Colour does not truly return to paintings until the years following the armistice. In Tunnard’s case, it is within these more colourful post-war pictures of the late 1940s that one observes the detritus of war, as though barbed wire defenses and floating wreckage seemed a normal part of the conflict and not until the aftermath did they became an offense to the sea and its coastline. (The Sea-bed and Second Wrecking, 1947).

Unlike so many of his fellow artists, who fled the country for exotic climes as soon as they were able, Tunnard found solace in his native land. He did not noticeably change his method of painting as he became absorbed and excited by the rapid advances in new technology. His landscapes contain references to aerial flight, radio telescopes and rockets to the moon.

So why should such an important British artist, a unique man of his time, have sunk into relative obscurity for fifty years? It is not an easily answered question but the reply will be found with the promoters of art and not with the art itself. He came from a generation of artists whose temperament would be unrecognizable today: modest, self-contained and talented.

Peter Nahum, December 1996

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This post was written by joecollinson