Friday, 14 May 2021

John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace


John Nash, The Cornfield, 1918 (Tate)

Few paintings express a soldier’s joy in returning safely home as beautifully as The Cornfield, John Nash’s gilded vision of corn stooks dancing a jig (or so it seems) on a Buckinghamshire hillside. In the summer of 1918 the war was still raging, but he had been plucked from his foxhole in the Flanders mud to work as a war artist alongside his brother Paul. Their days were spent in a former herb-drying shed, working for the Ministry of War on paintings that would serve as a memorial to the conflict. While Paul recreated the phantasmagoric landscapes he had witnessed as an observer in the autumn of 1917, John worked from his firsthand experience of battle to produce first Over The Top, a painting that simply and hauntingly portrays the human cost of war, then Oppy Wood, in which the ghastly trench landscape is shown beneath a sky of blue. The battle was dreadful, the painting seems to say, but it is over.

Think of John Nash and it is probably one of these three oil paintings that will spring to mind. The long and productive career that followed Nash’s brief sojourn as a war artist has largely been forgotten. Indeed, Andrew Lambirth’s elegant 2019 monograph is the first major book on the artist ever published, and The Landscape of Love and Solace, accompanying the new book of the same title by Andy Friend, is the first large-scale exhibition since Nash’s 1967 retrospective at the Royal Academy. Without a strident champion many artists fade from public view after death, and only the best have a chance of being resurrected years later. In Nash’s case such a revival has been on the cards for a while, but the timing of this joyful, sensitive exhibition could not be better. After a year of gallery deprivation visitors to Towner are in for a treat.

Although he lacked formal art school training Nash was from an early age both a gifted draughtsman and acute observer of nature. His love of plants evolved into a passion for gardening, and with a large swathe of the British public sharing this enthusiasm, magazine and book publishers commissioned him to make exquisite botanical illustrations in a variety of media. His line drawings are sensational but Nash was also, lest we forget, one of the pioneers of modern wood engraving. His wicked, wonderful 1927 book Poisonous Plants is a treasure that reveals both his skill as an engraver and the complex chiaroscuro of his personality. Nash experienced more than his share of heartbreak and suffered lifelong from periods of depression. But he retained a delicious sense of humour and a passion for the countryside, the latter inspiring the oil paintings and watercolours of hills and farms, woods and ponds that are his true legacy. There is no overt symbolism or overpowering design in paintings like The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall. The composition is subtle, the tones carefully balanced and the brushwork delicate. These paintings need to be savoured. Like the hidden places Nash sought out, they reveal their secrets slowly. 

John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace is at Towner, Eastbourne. I wrote this preview for the May 2021 issue of World of Interiors. 

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