By Andrew Lambirth

Unicorn Press.  352 pages. £40. ISBN 978-1-916495-70-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

John Nash was for many years overshadowed by his brother, Paul. Perhaps he still is in most people’s eyes? Paul Nash’s reputation as a war artist has been reinforced over the years with various exhibitions and books about both the First and Second World Wars.  There are classic images that seem to capture the essence of the grim trench war of 1916, or the spectacle of aeroplanes leaving vapour trails in the sky as they weave around each other during the dog-fights of 1940. Paul Nash also has some kudos attached to his name because of his involvements with British Surrealism in the 1930s. Authors often like to write books about movements in art, and being linked to one or other of them tends to ensure that a painter will have a place in such surveys. There is, too, the fact that Paul Nash “was more worldly, more ambitious, and much more alert to art politics than his brother”.

I can’t imagine John Nash ever getting too involved with groups and movements, though he certainly had friends in the world of the arts. And, when it came to portraying war on canvas he did spend months as a war artist towards the end of the Great War. But before that he had served on the front line and taken part in some of the fierce fighting of the time. When it came to representing the situation in France his “Over the Top” is probably a realistic portrayal of how it was. The soldiers, having clambered out of their trench are trudging toward enemy lines, their heads bowed, and their rifles carried loosely at their side and not aggressively. They give the appearance of exhaustion and resignation as they walk wearily into what is certain to be sustained enemy shelling and machine-gun fire.

Once out of the army it became obvious that there was more to JN (I’m going to follow Andrew Lambirth and refer to JN rather keep spelling out his full name) than as a minor war artist. Born in 1893, he showed some early skills at drawing, but unlike his older brother (born 1889) he had little or no formal training as an artist, and was more or less self-taught. He was said to have later expressed regret about not attending art school, but Lambirth is of the opinion that Nash never really felt inadequate for not having that experience: “What could it have taught him that he didn’t learn for himself or absorb from friends and contemporaries?”

Nature was JN’s chief inspiration, though he clearly picked up ideas from other painters. And there is “a convincing argument for the influence of Cezanne in the 1920s”. But it his landscapes that are probably what he is best-known for, and they engaged “with a simplification of landscape forms which nevertheless enhanced their significance”. What he was after was producing a painting that was simply good to look at, and not meant to “educate” the viewer. In Lambirth words: “The artist’s job is to entertain and give pleasure, not to instruct”. In an age where the political seemingly has to run through everything, the continuing popularity of JN’s work among non-specialists lies in the fact that people just like to look at it. The same can surely also be said about the art of Eric Ravilious, a friend of JN’s who tragically died young.  Both artists took the real world, whether rural or urban, as their model, and then invested it with their own idiosyncratic colourings and designs

JN had some success prior to the First World War, particularly as a water-colourist, and joined the New English Art Club, which had been established as a counter-force to what was seen as the establishment dominating the Royal Academy and other institutions. Among his contemporaries were young moderns like William Roberts, Robert Bevan, Charles Ginner, Spencer Gore, Harold Gilman, and Wyndham Lewis. Influences from abroad, primarily France, were affecting all these artists. Lambirth points out, however, that both JN and Paul Nash were producing work that “struck an instantly modern note without an apparent debt to all these influences, as if they had produced a home-grown version of Post-Impressionism without any of the usual awkward traces of hybrid origin”. It was a lively period when groups formed, fell apart, and formed again under different names: the Fitzroy Street Group, the Camden Town Group, the Cumberland Market Group. Whenever I visit Judd Books in Marchmont Street I think of the area in 1913 and both JN and his brother living there.

An idea of JN’s character can be gained from Lambirth’s comments about him dressing “unobtrusively, more like a plantsman or countryman than as a painter”. In this, he was akin to Robert Bevan, who Lambirth describes as “ like a countryman familiar with dogs and horses than a bohemian artist”. It’s an interesting area to explore, this need to portray oneself as just an ordinary person and not a pretentious poet or painter. It doesn’t only extend to outward appearance, but can be heard in conversation, as when JN stated that he preferred gardening and fishing to painting. It may not be as pronounced now as it used to be, colourful and casual dress being more in evidence in society generally, but I suspect that a kind of bluff, down-to-earth Englishness still persuades many people that a person is basically sound. But beneath the conventional façade, JN did live a bohemian life in some ways, often short of money and with a reputation as a philanderer.

When JN finished his wartime service, as an infantryman and later a war artist, he soon settled into the life of a fulltime artist. There doesn’t seem to have been any major changes in what he aimed for, and a watercolour called “The Cornfield” (“The whole composition is superbly managed and patterned with the glorious tensity that comes over farmland with ripeness and repletion at harvest time”, in Lambirth’s words) establishes the pattern of what he mostly did throughout his lifetime. Aside from the very early lessons he may have drawn from French Post-Impressionists, or his English contemporaries, it’s probably true to say that JN never essentially altered his basic style. Lambirth refers to “The Cornfield” as “an image of pastoral idyll, and thus very dear to an Englishman’s heart”. I’m not sure I can accept the generalisation that all Englishmen share a liking for a “pastoral idyll” and it tends to make me feel that people in the home counties don’t see the rest of the country, especially in the industrial North and Midlands, as really England.

Let me say at this point that I’ve no complaint to make about JN or any other artist establishing and maintaining a style throughout a lifetime. As long as they continue to sustain a high level of technical competence, and an imaginative interpretation of subject-matter, it doesn’t seem essential that they should “make it new”. This is true of representational art, though I have my doubts if it is applied to abstraction, where there are fewer places to go. After the Abstract Expressionists, and the St Ives artists in Britain, it always struck me that a lot of abstract art had reached a dead-end.

JN was included in the English section of the Venice Biennial in the 1920s, worked briefly as an art critic for the London Mercury, and contributed humorous drawings to various publications. It’s significant that he no longer felt a need to align himself with any group or movement, and he went on the attack against them, writing that: “There is a distemper prevalent amongst artists of today. I refer to the mania for group forming”. He pointed out that groups always had a spirit of dissension which led to “disgruntled diaspora” and characterised what he thought was “an inherent distrust of each other which all artists seem to possess”. He might have added that ambition and ego are usually not in short supply among artists and writers. JN was not often thought of as being saddled with either affliction, though later in life Vera Coker, wife of Peter Coker, a painter who became friendly with JN, described him as “very self-centred, with quite a high opinion of himself”.

Earning a living as an artist often requires turning to various activities in order to make money. Artists teach (JN’s students often remembered him as usually positive and helpful in his comments on their work), they provide illustrations for commercial enterprises, and they experiment with different techniques. JN became highly proficient with wood-engravings and produced many of them as book and magazine illustrations. Lambirth remarks that critics have pointed out that “only twice had England led the world in the arts- first with watercolours and secondly with wood engravings”. And he quotes another commentator saying that wood engraving “requires greater integrity in craftsmanship than any other means of reproduction”. It’s possible to see what is meant when one looks at the 1922 “A Gloucestershire Cottage”, a wood-engraving “with its lucid design and sumptuous textures, the bushes and plants contrasting lyrically with the façade of the cottage”. I must admit that my own favourite from the selection of wood-engravings in the book is the 1924 “Common Objects”, with its collection of a cat, a kettle, a cushion, an umbrella, a book, and more, all of it wonderfully striking.

JN’s chief interest was always in landscapes, and he was constantly looking for new places to focus on with pen, pencil, and brush. In this he was assisted by his wife, Christine, who was far more practical about everyday matters than he was. But I ought not to ignore JN’s skill as a botanical illustrator, and he produced numerous illustrations for books and magazines: “JN became expert at depicting the decorative structure of plants and flowers. Although always text-book accurate, he was also able to draw plants as if they were really alive and capable of wilting or flourishing”. The accompanying illustrations to Lambirth’s comments certainly appear (to my admittedly town-bred eye) to bear out the accuracy of his assertions.

With his landscapes there is no doubt that JN was not a mere copyist, and the overall lay-out of a painting determined what was left in or left out. Once, when he asked a student why he had shown some daffodils in a painting, the student replied, “Because they were there”. The person observing this incident thought that JN would have left them out: “He simplified a subject”. When I look at something like the fine 1953 oil painting, “Frozen Pond” or the equally impressive 1950 “A Barn Wormingford”, and the ravishing 1959 “Wild Garden, Winter”, and ”A Pond Near Cambridge”,  I’m minded to reflect on what may or may not have been edited out of the pictures as JN established their pictorial structures. It was certainly rare for figures to appear in his landscapes, for example, even if they had been there as he sketched what he could see. Or wanted to see?

He did move way from gardens and ponds and farms, and painted some non-rural scenes, though not of the streets of the cities. I don’t think that he would have wanted to paint pictures of shop-fronts and bustling shoppers. He did like to look around dock-areas in Bristol, Great Yarmouth, and Ipswich, and some of the watercolour scenes he captured in those places do sometimes remind me of Eric Ravilious. The clarity of the lines is impressive.

John Nash died in 1977. There had been a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy in 1967, and a major museum show in 1971 which opened in Chelmsford and later moved to Worthing. But, as Lambirth points out, there hasn’t been another big exhibition since then. It isn’t because his work has declined in popularity with a wide public. When people see it they like it. And it makes me wonder if that isn’t part of the problem? Its popularity may damn it in the eyes of curators and critics raised on academic theory and abstract art. JN himself had little time for theory and I suspect the same might be said of Andrew Lambirth, whose writing is always clear and directly related to the subject. Some years ago I bought The Spectator regularly just so I could read the review pages and especially Lambirth’s column. I have his volume of selected writings from The Spectator, and this splendid book about John Nash will make an excellent companion to it.