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Art review: John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace at Compton Verney, Warwickshire

26 November 2021

Nicholas Cranfield visits an exhibition about an artist of war and peace

Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

John Nash, Over the Top, 1st Artists Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917 (1918), oil on canvas

John Nash, Over the Top, 1st Artists Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917 (1918), oil on canvas

DESPAIRING of the state of her own world at the start of the Second Elizabethan Age, even with the likes of Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier, Dame Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976) wrote disparagingly to her son: “Where are our Picassos — our Matisses or Nashes — our equivalents in the Theatre? The leaders like John G. and Larry don’t seem to do anything new. . .”

Tastes often change, but it might at first surprise us that in the 1950s the names of “the brothers Nash” (both were irritated by the joint appellation) came so readily to mind, paired alongside those of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

This exhibition, which has transferred from the Towner in Eastbourne, where I first saw it as an international tennis tournament was played out below the gallery, sets out to suggest that John Northcote Nash (1893-1977) might be admitted to the pantheon.

Although born in Kensington, Nash’s profound sense of the English countryside came from growing up in Buckinghamshire and moving to Essex during the Second World War. Later living at Wormingford, he accepted the young Ronald Blythe, “of this parish”, as a sort of surrogate son; John and Christine’s only son had died at the age of eight in a road accident that scarred both parents for life.

Nash got Blythe to write the festival booklet for the ninth Aldeburgh Festival in 1956, and Blythe’s film of the artist for BBC2 was shown in March 1969. It runs for 34 minutes. Both are featured in the exhibition. Blythe has also written extensively of his neighbour whom he nursed in his final years and whose farmhouse he inherited.

Readers of this journal in recent years will be familiar with his Word from Wormingford, and many will have read Blythe’s 1969 Akenfield, a fictional account of traditional rural life of a Suffolk village and a way of life that has since vanished; in much the same way, Nash painted rural England, a disappearing world.

The landscape of Warwickshire surrounding the house which was classically rebuilt for the Dean of Windsor in 1711 is quite different from that of the Chilterns or the Stour Valley, but the exhibition speaks to it and naturally leads out of the stately home into the landscapes and the lake that “Capability” Brown designed at Compton. Brown also designed the estate church (1776-79), incorporating earlier monuments from the late medieval church that had been demolished. This is said to be his only ecclesiastical commission.

Courtesy of Private CollectionJohn Nash, Harvesting, 1946, lithograph poster

Amy Orrock has curated the show here for Andy Friend, who was in charge at the Towner, and who has written a magisterial biography to accompany the exhibition. With the benefit of smaller rooms than at Eastbourne, with lower ceilings, she has created a more accessible show based on telling details.

In the first room, after a wall of his earlier works and complementing designs and sketches for his brother Paul’s First World War paintings, hang side by side two iconic works that Sybil Thorndike might have had in mind.

Over the Top, 1st Artists Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917 (1918) hangs next to The Cornfield, both painted at the same time; as war artists, the brothers, who shared a studio, were contracted to paint during working hours, but dedicated their evenings to their own painting.

The younger Nash had served with the Artists Rifles, first as a private then as a corporal, and after a gruelling day’s wintry march in snow during the Battle of Cambrai his battalion was called to the front line; within the first few minutes of going over the ridge, 68 men of the company of 80 were killed or wounded. Here, Edgehill, where the first battle of the English Civil War broke occurred in August 1642, can almost be glimpsed through the trees of the estate.

If his painting of that bitter experience and the frozen landscape of Flanders suggests death, the burst of colour in a late summer’s evening with corn stooks marching across a field reminds us of resurrection. For Nash, that was his own personal “thanksgiving to survival”, and landscape became increasingly a solace after the destruction of war.

In the Second World War, he was assigned as a War Artist to the Navy, and painted HMS Hood in dry dock at Plymouth. It is as if it is a metal wedge being driven towards us; but the work is cold and unevenly handled as against A Dockyard Fire, which captured (from memory) an incident in which the artist had been involved when an air raid set the Swansea docks ablaze. That has all the vigour of John Piper’s St Mary le Port in East Bristol (Tate); that church was burned out in a raid in November 1940.

Nash was unhappy not to be involved, and his war service did not greatly inspire his art, but the coda to his work, with views of the North Norfolk coast (The Breakwater, 1968), Skye (The Quiaring and Cullins), and Provence, finds him at his best to the end.

Visitors have the bonus of being able to see the expanded exhibition marking the tercentenary of Grinling Gibbons (Features, 6 August; Arts, 13 August). The elaborate font cover with its riot of cherubs (All Hallows by the Tower, London) may not be here, but centre stage is a remarkable wooden horse carved in 1686 (Royal Armouries, HM Tower of London).

“John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace” is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 23 January 2022. Phone 01926 645500. Timed tickets for the gallery at: www.comptonverney.org.uk

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