John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace
By Theresa Thompson, Arts Correspondent
John Nash, A Gloucestershire Landscape. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
I drove home through a Nash-ian landscape. Sloping green fields, blue skies, rounded trees, and long shadows cast by the late afternoon sunshine of an idyllic English autumn.
It was as if John Nash had been there before me, painting in watercolour or oil the English landscapes he loved.
I had just been reminded of the life and work of one of Britain’s most versatile and prolific artists of the 20th century, John Nash (1893-1977), in a superb retrospective exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire. And just as Nash would have advised, I was now really seeing.
John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace, the show’s title, picks up on two very important themes in his life: his love of landscape, of nature, of gardening and plants, as well as for his wife Christine Kuhlenthal; and the solace he gained after tragedy or trauma by returning to nature, and painting or working on his garden in beautiful parts of southern England.
The show is produced in association with the Towner Eastbourne and amazingly, is the first retrospective of John Nash since the Royal Academy’s exhibition in 1967.
John Nash, Deadly Nightshade, 1927, from the Buckinghamshire County Museum
With over 170 works on show, wood engravings, line-drawings, lithographs, watercolours, besides more personal and at times comic sketches, it is an enjoyably comprehensive show. A reawakening in a sense, certainly for me, an opportunity to be reminded of how incredibly creative and diverse John Nash was – an artist who often seems to take second place to his older brother, the surrealist artist Paul Nash.
For who among us hasn’t looked at a painting in a gallery and seen ‘a Nash’, conveniently side-stepping the question of whether it is by Paul or John? There’s plenty of overlap. They were both war artists, producing famous war paintings, and both were superb landscape painters, with fine differences. The exhibition has four paintings by Paul Nash to aid the narrative - but this is John’s time to shine.
And shine he does, through the strength and range of art he produced. From his signature landscapes to book illustrations and wonderfully detailed botanical illustrations - a particularly strong part of the exhibition, gathered together appropriately in a ‘greenhouse’ – there is much to enjoy here.
Several quotes stood out for me. One in a video in the final room, quoted a wartime painter contemporary of Nash, Walter Sickert, who, differentiating the two brothers, helpfully described Paul as “a poet with his head in the clouds”, while John was “like the child a painter should be, putting his hand in his mouth to tell us what he had seen in a field or a farm that afternoon”.
I love that image. The passion described. In another quotation at the exhibition entrance, John, a largely self-taught artist and a master of close observation especially in his plants work, commended the value of looking: “the artist’s main business is to train the eye to see, then to probe, and then to train his hand to work in sympathy with his eye. I have made a habit of looking, of really seeing.”
John Nash, Over the Top, 1st Artists Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917, 1918, Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
In 1916, Nash enlisted and served in the First World War with the Artists Rifles. One of his greatest paintings, Over the Top (1918, Imperial War Museum), shown in the first gallery, was inspired by his time in Flanders. It depicts British soldiers counter-attacking at Welsh Ridge, Marcoing on 30 December 1917, during the Battle of Cambrai. Of the 80 men in his company, 68 were killed or wounded in the first few minutes. Nash was one of just 12 who survived.
Compton Verney’s Senior Curator, Amy Orrock, calls the painting “Breughellian”. It is an arresting painting. There’s the startling contrast between brilliant white untainted snow and the red earth trench, for one thing, and then again between the apparent stillness of the brown uniformed men and their actions, doggedly going over the top…
There are mini narratives there too just as in Breughel’s snowy scenes. Nash has his characters clambering zombie-like from the trench - and those who survived that danger, plodding onwards without anyone looking back. Although it is a work of pitiless realism, possibly there is a hint of dark humour in the postures of the men, Orrock muses. That Nash had a comic sense comes across later in the show in light-hearted sketches, such as tiny caricatures he made at meetings or on book covers (e.g. Happy New Lear, Guinness, published in 1957, a play on Edward Lear’s limericks).
John Nash, Harvesting, 1946, lithograph poster. Courtesy of Private Collection
Over the Top is juxtaposed with a painting that is difficult to imagine was painted in the same year. The pairing speaks of the massive changes in life for all at that time as well as Nash’s artistic versatility. In 1918, he left the army and became an official war artist. The Cornfield (1918, Tate) is a movingly peaceful landscape and was the first painting he made after leaving that did not depict the theme of war. Its stylised, geometric handling heralds some of his brother’s later works.
It also tells us something of their pattern of life then. The long shadows cast by the evening sun across the field subtly indicate that Nash would paint for his own pleasure only after six o'clock when his work as a war artist was over for the day. The painting was intended as a form of ‘thanksgiving to survival’ of the Great War.
After serving in both world wars and following personal tragedies such as the loss of his only child, Nash and his wife found solace in bucolic landscapes, from Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns to the leafy splendour of the Stour valley between Essex and Suffolk.
Compton Verney is a picture-perfect venue for a John Nash exhibition.
Julie Finch, Director, highlights the connection between the exhibition and its setting: “Compton Verney is a place where nature and environment meet art and creativity, so in these respects, I think it is an ideal place for an exhibition devoted to one of the country’s leading botanic artists.”
She adds: “After seeing the exhibition, I hope people will be inspired to explore our 120 acres of magnificent Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown landscaped parkland to make their visit a complete experience; one that I like to think Nash himself would have thoroughly enjoyed.”
John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace
Showing until: 2 January 2022
Compton Verney Art Gallery & Park, Warwickshire, CV35 9HZ
Squirrel detail from Wren Library Coat of Arms, exhibit in Centuries in the Making exhibition, Grinling Gibbons 300 festival, credit and copyright Trinity College, Cambridge
And whilst at Compton Verney do try to make time to look at the marvellous Grinling Gibbons tercentenary exhibition on view inside the Grade I-listed Georgian mansion.
Grinling Gibbons: Centuries in the Making which was first shown at Bonhams, New Bond Street, London, is at Compton Verney until 30th January 2022.
Produced in partnership with the Grinling Gibbons Society, it reveals the life, genius and legacy of the most renowned British woodcarver of the 17th century, often called the ‘Michelangelo of Wood.’
It is an outstanding opportunity. Gibbons’ work is usually only seen in situ in Britain’s royal palaces, including Windsor and Hampton Court, or in important churches like St Paul’s Cathedral and York Minster, and the grandest of stately homes, but some fine examples can be seen together in this exhibition, including items rarely on public display.