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John Nash: Artist and countryman, by Andrew Lambirth

by
24 July 2020

Malcolm Doney considers the evaluation of his work

JOHN NASH (1893-1977) was an accomplished painter known for his landscapes and illustrations of flowers and plants. But he lived in the shadow of his more critically acclaimed artist brother, Paul (1889-1946). John’s relative obscurity means that Andrew Lambirth’s comprehensive monograph is the first serious art-historical evaluation of his work, published 42 years after the artist’s death.

John Nash: Artist and countryman is a fastidiously researched, and knowledgeably weighed study of someone who, Lambirth argues persuasively, has been perpetually underrated.

While both Paul and John were known for their landscapes, Paul was a surrealist, an art-school-trained intellectual exponent of ideas and symbolism, whose work chimed Crown copyright UK Government Art CollectionStour Valley (pre-1959), oil, by John Nash, from the book. He has received less notice than the East Anglian artists Edward Bawden and Eric Raviliouswith the spirit of the age in the first half of the 20th century. John, however, was a self-taught unsophisticated lover of nature.

“In [Paul Nash’s] work”, Lambirth writes, “a broken tree stump would have been a Romantic symbol for death — as it would be in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or Edvard Munch. In [John’s] work, it was just a tree stump. . . he celebrated the land’s actual fact.”

Lambirth quotes the Master of Downing Edward Marsh: “When Jack sits down before a landscape, his only desire is to do his best for it, whereas Paul, who likes to order Nature about, uses it as a spring-board for some construction of his own.”

The book gives John Nash his well-deserved day in the sun. It charts, in great detail, his career, his preoccupations, and his technique. Disappointingly, for me, it is deliberately short on biographical anecdote: acknowledging, but skating over, his subject’s affair-strewn “randiness”, the suffering from “Nash blackness”, and other personal quirks and details. But that is not this work’s remit.

The person who emerges from the book is someone who had a profound, almost mystical, connection with nature — who didn’t simply observe landscape, but lived in it, as the book’s subtitle suggests. Although art came first, gardening came a very close second. The garden that Nash created at Bottengoms Farm on the Essex-Suffolk border (celebrated by his friend the writer and former Church Times columnist Ronald Blythe, who now lives there) is a blend of the wild and the cultivated.© By kind permission of the estate of John NashThe Black Barn, Bottengoms (1947), watercolour, by John Nash; from the book 

As a painter and draughtsman, Nash had an instinctive eye for design. There is a graphic sensibility about his work which is compelling. Lambirth sums it up well: “Painting was about shaping but not forcing nature into a pattern; rather seeking the abstract structure beneath the surface detail, and interpreting without forfeiting character.” His flower drawings, though exact, also allowed for flair. “I feel a slight pencil flourish even of part of a plant is more valuable than a photograph.”

The lucid innocence of John Nash’s early landscapes and the sure-footed confidence of his mature East Anglian works in the late 1950s and 1960s — not to mention his plant drawings and exquisite wood engravings — compare favourably with the work his, currently fashionable, friends Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden. The hope is that this splendidly heavyweight study will get him to be taken equally seriously.

 

Malcolm Doney is a freelance writer and broadcaster and Anglican priest. He is the co-author, with Martin Wroe, of Lifelines: Notes on life and love, faith and doubt (Unbound, 2018).

 

John Nash: Artist and countryman
Andrew Lambirth
Unicorn £40
(978-1-916495-70-8)
Church Times Bookshop £36

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