Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Drawing of boats and town

‘Some sun though hazy, to Devoran - did awkward drawing of boats and town. Rushed back to Tresilian & did sketch from car.’ This is the painter and illustrator, John Nash (not to be confused with John Nash the architect) - born 130 years ago today - writing his diary in the twilight years of his life. Though less well remembered than his brother Paul Nash, it was John Nash who was the subject of the first ever retrospective exhibition by the Royal Academy of a living painter.

Nash was born on 11 April 1893 in London, the younger son of a lawyer and his wife who came from a family with a naval tradition. In 1901, the family moved to Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire. Nash was educated at Langley Place in Slough and afterwards at Wellington College, Berkshire. His mother died in a mental asylum in 1910. Nash went to work as a newspaper reporter initially but, increasingly, was drawn to the art world thanks to his older brother, Paul, who was studying at the Slade School of Art, and to Paul’s friends Claughton Pellew and Dora Carrington. It was Carrington who introduced Nash to Christine K├╝hlenthal, another artist (who he married in 1918). He enjoyed his first success as an artist at a joint exhibition with Paul at the Dorien Leigh Gallery, London. He joined the so-called London Group, and exhibited in 1915 at the Goupil Gallery.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Nash was prevented from enlisting by ill health but, from November 1916, he joined the Artists Rifles. He served as a sergeant at the Battle of Passchendaele and at the battle of Cambrai. In 1917, he produced what would become his most famous oil painting, Over the Top, now to be found in the Imperial War Museum. On his brother’s recommendation he was employed as a war artist in 1918. After the war, he settled first in Gerrard’s Cross, then he moved, in 1921, to Meadle, near Princes Risborough, also in Buckinghamshire, which remained his permanent home until 1944 (though he bought a summer cottage in Suffolk). In 1920, he was a founder member of the Society of Wood Engravers, and in 1923, he became a member of the Modern English Water-colour Society.

Increasingly, Nash worked on woodcuts and wood engravings as illustrations to literary periodicals and for books produced by the private presses. Having become the first art critic on the London Mercury, he also took up teaching at the Oxford Ruskin School. From 1934, and then for ten years after the Second World War, he taught at The Royal College of Art. During the war, he again served, this time in the Observer Corps before becoming Official War Artist to the Admiralty in 1940.

After the war, Nash lived at Wormingford, in the Stour Valley in Essex, and he taught at the Colchester Art School. He was one of the founders of Colchester Art Society and later its president. In 1951, he became a full member of the Royal Academy, which gave him a retrospective exhibition, the first for any living painter. Nash’s wife died in 1976, after 58 years together, and Nash died a year later. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Colchester Art Society, and the Jenna Burlingham Gallery.

Nash is not known as a diarist. However, a recent and excellent biography - John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace (Thames & Hudson, 2020) by Andy Friend - includes a good number of references to diaries Nash kept in his later years. Mostly these references are used by Friend as source material for his text, but he does also, occasionally, include a few quoted extracts, such as the following.

21 April 1975
‘A lady from Sotheby’s to call about 30c. She brought me the painting which I had thought not mine from the Photo. Decided it was mine, probably circa 1015 in the Cotswolds. On the back of another. Biblical scene. Lot & family being led from Sodom & G. by angels, also probably by me. Damaged in parts. 1913 or so? The Cotswold picture badly cracked. Probably done when w. Father in Cheltenham.’

3 March 1976
‘Some sun though hazy, to Devoran - did awkward drawing of boats and town. Rushed back to Tresilian & did sketch from car. Sun gone and mist coming up. Tried to another. Very poor light.’

30 November 1976
‘The last day of this vile and malignant month, an utter curse fell on it and all its horrible events. Christine’s death, poor old Hog as well. The only bright spots have been the kindness of dear friends and the kind letters which all affected one because they expressed the feelings of love & respect felt by all for her. Now I must try and battle on & start again. God help us, if there is one.’

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