Looking at the Land: John Nash at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne

by lowepj33

John Nash painted ‘The Cornfield’ (1918) to express his thanks at having been spared death in the trenches of the Western Front. Seeing it today, some of that gratitude still seems to radiate from the canvas, even if the viewer cannot hope to fully appreciate the deliverance felt by a man who had returned to England to find that “the whole Vale of Amersham is a mass of corn” rather than a blasted landscape of craters, barbed wire, and tree stumps. Bathed in evening sunlight, its pastoral tranquillity takes on an almost religious hue, like the ‘golden country’ imagined by Winston Smith as an escape from the dystopian nightmare of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The landscape and the landscape-format painting provide balance and harmony in an unsettled world.

A century on, our own relationship with such views is shaped by different concerns. If we are less likely to be troubled by the possibility of British fields becoming battlefields we have, nonetheless, no choice but to consider whether a changing climate will alter such familiar motifs beyond recognition. In a country beset by drought and flash-flooding, with an agricultural sector in crisis, ‘The Cornfield’ retains a totemic hold on our imagination.  This is, perhaps, because we need to think of it as true just as much as the traumatised artist who, even as he painted it in the hours after his day’s work producing ‘official’ war art for the government, wrote to Dora Carrington that there were ‘battalions’ of binders working to pull the corn into the sheaves that seem to march across its landscape. We know, too, that discussions of landscape and its ‘ownership’ easily shade into debates over the relationship between ‘community’, ‘nation’, and ‘place’; all terms that carry a dangerous charge in the uneasy climate of Brexit Britain with its fraught sense of the ‘metropolitan’ and the ‘rural’, the ‘native’ and the ‘migrant’. After eighteen months of the pandemic, too, we may have our own sense of gratitude and being able to survey such a landscape for ourselves, to know that such things are still there after all.

John Nash ‘The Cornfield’ (1918, Tate Britain)

In the Towner Gallery’s excellent exhibition ‘John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace’, the visitor encounters ‘The Cornfield’ in the context of Nash’s wartime experience and the work that he would go on to produce afterwards. In its floorplan the exhibition resists chronology, using its opening room to plunge the visitor directly into the First World War in order to then return them to Nash’s earlier years, before emerging again into the wide variety of work that he began to produce in the 1920s and maintained for five decades. This arrangement carries a significant emotional weight. Like his brother Paul, John Nash’s time in the trenches produced some of the most well-known artworks of the First World War, from the large-format landscape of ‘Oppy Wood, 1917, Evening’ to the soldiers in ‘Over the Top’ who seem to leave their trench to trudge wearily towards the gunfire that has already mown down several of their comrades. Like Paul’s ‘Menin Road’, his wartime works invert the idea of what a landscape should be, keeping the components only to show how the world mocks the artist’s attempts to find beauty in it, swapping shell craters for ponds, and barbed wire for hedgerows. As an ‘other ranker’, John, unlike his brother, was not allowed to draw in situ, and so produced his war paintings from memory once he was back in England. It took, understandably, a long time for him to move beyond the images fixed in his memory, living as he did simultaneously in the present and the trauma of the past.

Whereas Paul would spend the 1920s and 30s processing that psychological shift through a Surrealist approach to subject matter and form, as Tate Britain’s 2016 retrospective made clear, John returned to depicting the natural world with a greater degree of fidelity. Works like ‘Winter Scene’ (1920) or ‘The Edge of the Plain’ (1926) are atmospheric, but without the dark air of crisis that permeates Paul’s ‘Margate’ paintings. Having not had his brother’s formal artistic training, John would find his most effective subjects in smaller things. His output in the 1920s incorporated illustrations in botanical volumes, woodcuts, and designs for book dust jackets for the Curwen Press.  His landscapes become almost devoid of figures, although objects and buildings are always suggestive of a human presence.  Rather than appear troubling on account of this absence, though, a sense of harmony is often pervasive, as though the land itself retains its own sense of balance.

The difference between John’s more conventional style and Paul’s critically acclaimed blending of a Surrealist aesthetic into his Second World War paintings (as in the piled-up wreckage of the German aircraft in ‘Totes Meer’ for example) came to be reflected in their subsequent standings in the history of British Art. The Towner’s exhibition is the first solely devoted to John since his 1967 retrospective at the Royal Academy, and in the scope and quality of its content it is long overdue. Endowed as it is with a rich holding of works by Eric Ravilious, the Towner is, however, also an ideal venue to showcase how John Nash arguably fits into the British artistic scene of the 1930s more readily than his brother’s European-influenced vision. Seeing some of John’s Second World War paintings, like ‘A Dockyard Fire’ (1940) it is a great advantage to be able to follow the exhibition with a visit to the nearby Ravilious galleries to carry over one’s assessment and see where John’s work finds its place.  The exhibition’s final room also draws attention to John’s teaching and administrative duties, reminding us of the figure of ‘the artist as committee man’, supportive of others and sustained himself by many friendships.

John outlived Paul by thirty-one years, surviving his wife Christine by only a few months and dying in 1977. Their life together, with its moments of emotional and creative triumph and loss, is richly captured in the new biography John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace written by the exhibition’s co-curator Andy Friend and published by Thames & Hudson to coincide with the display. As with the Towner’s 2017 exhibition ‘Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship’ (also co-curated and with an accompanying book by Friend) both the display and the biography provide ample material to (re)engage with the artist’s work, and to think anew about its place within a rich tradition of Twentieth-Century British landscape art. In the final room, we see John’s ‘The Barn at Wormingford’, painted on the occasion of his becoming a full Royal Academy member in 1951, displayed amidst a rich vein of landscapes and book illustrations produced well into the 1970s. One of these, ‘Harvesting’, produced in 1947 for inclusion in the School Prints scheme, transposes the earlier cornfield into a more human scene, as people sit in the shade of the sheaves while dogs chase rabbits run across the exposed earth. Produced after the end of another war, its blend of natural and human interest reassures the viewer that some things endure even after the century’s second cataclysm. Although commissioned for display in schools, the image is in no way ‘childish’ in nature, just engagingly focused on the small things that reflect rural continuity amidst the turmoil so visible elsewhere.

John Nash, ‘Harvesting’ (1947, Tate Britain)

This continuity is important, and reminds us that alongside the richness of the works on display arguably the best reason for visiting the Towner’s exhibition this summer is the fact that one can do so. To be able to see these works in person is an experience that has been impossible in the months of lockdown and which we are happily beginning to enjoy again. Standing in front of ‘The Cornfield’ and the other works as viewers file past, linger, and take in this fine survey of Nash’s oeuvre, it is impossible not to feel one’s own sense of gratitude.  For us, as for Nash in 1918, the challenges of the future remain real but the comforts of the present are indeed welcome.

‘John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace’ is at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, until 26 September.