Oppy Wood, 1917. (Photo by John Nash/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

The life and loves of John Nash

Andy Friend provides a readable account of Nash’s life, but omits important detail about how the artist made others feel

This year the twentieth-century English painter John Nash is the subject of a book and an exhibition, the only major solo show since a retrospective at Royal Academy in 1967 – at the time the first for a living painter. The premise is that his work has been overlooked in favour of his brother Paul, born in 1889 and four years his senior, who predeceased John by 30 years.

Paul went to the Slade but advised his brother not to go to art school “because it would ruin his individuality”. He was an avowed modernist, who dabbled with surrealism and helped to stage the first surrealist exhibition in London in 1936. John was a light-touch romantic modernist whose work wouldn’t frighten the horses.

Walter Sickert described Paul as “a poet with his head in the clouds” and John “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”. Both men produced famous war paintings: Paul, Menin Gate, and John, Oppy Wood. Both are bleak scenes of destruction but Oppy Wood has streaks of bright sky peeping through. In 1919 John painted Cornfield, which the writer Ronald Blythe, who lived for many years with John and his wife Christine Kuhlenthal, described as “a thankful relief at living again”.

John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace by Andy Friend (Thames and Hudson, £30).

The milieu of John Nash is familiar territory for Andy Friend. The same characters appear in his previous book, Ravilious and Co: The Pattern of Friendship — Paul Nash, Edward Bawden, Percy Bliss, Eric Ravilious and his wife Tirzah Garwood.

In the 1930s John Nash, who suffered from bouts of depression, chose to find solace in the East Anglian landscape of Constable and Gainsborough country, with its clear crystal light, wide skies and rolling countryside. He and Christine, a painter who gave up her work to support her husband, settled at Bottengoms, a Suffolk farmhouse in the fold of a valley near Wormingford, where they created a wonderful wild garden which he lovingly tended until his death. Nash described himself as an Artist Plantsman and executed beautiful studies of flowers but also roamed the countryside to produce scenes from all seasons. Eric Newton wrote: “If I want to make a foreigner understand the mood of a typical English landscape, I would first show them a Constable painting and then one or two of John Nash’s best watercolours.”

Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden lived in Great Bardfield, Essex, 20 miles from the Nashes. Watercolours by Nash and Ravilious have the same pellucid, empty feel: landscapes devoid of figures. Both painted quarries, machinery and warships. However, while Ravilious painted almost entirely in watercolour, Nash mastered oils and produced some very distinctive pictures such as the Cubist-influenced A Berkshire Hillside 1934. His wood engravings, such as the 22 Poisonous Plants (1927) are peerless, some of the finest of the twentieth century and far more accomplished than those of the artists around him. Bawden and Nash were both commissioned to design book jackets and illustrations and fulfilled their briefs with great originality.

John Nash’s love life was complicated. Before Christine and he were married he pursued the painter Dora Carrington, who rebuffed his advances. Christine was occasionally sleeping with Carrington and her girlfriend Norah. After the death of their infant son William, who fell out of the car Christine was driving, John had a number of romantic liaisons, including with Helen Binyon, a former lover of Ravilious. Just a few years earlier Christine had begun an affair with Tony Hampton, whose wife Dulcie also fancied her.

Andy Friend provides a readable account of Nash’s life and loves. However, we don’t get to how John or Christine felt about each other’s behaviour or how he made others feel. Friend spoke to Jennifer Andrews, who joined one of Nash’s painting courses at Flatford Mill and “worshipped the ground he walked on”. But I wanted to know why.

John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace exhibition will take place at Towner Eastbourne from 1 May until 26 September 2021.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover