A lost opportunity to show John Nash at his best

Brothers in Art is a welcome initiative, but it could have done with quite a few more careful loans

9 August 2014

9:00 AM

9 August 2014

9:00 AM

Brothers in Art: John and Paul Nash

Royal West of England Academy, Queen’s Road, Clifton, Bristol, until 14 September

John Northcote Nash (1893–1977) was the younger brother of Paul Nash (1889–1946), and has been long overshadowed by Paul, though they started their careers on a relatively even footing. The crucible of WW1 changed them: afterwards Paul became an art-world figure, cultivating possible patrons, quietly forceful and ambitious, deeply involved in the theory and practice of Modernism. John retreated into his love of nature (in particular gardening and fishing) but continued to paint with an almost classical refinement and orderliness. His art stayed close to nature yet stood back from it, while the Romantic Paul was consciously experimental, adopting a poetic approach that was unexpectedly graphic until the great paintings of his final years. Both were adept at discovering shapes in nature from which they could construct memorable images.

Rather surprisingly, seeing as we’re in the process of marking the centenary of WW1, and both John and Paul were official war artists in both the world wars, there is not a trace of war art in this exhibition. This limiting to peacetime occupations has the effect of rather slanting the narratives of their lives: we are not given the whole story, and this is important as both brothers made images of war of lasting authority. This partial view is further weighted by the selection of work on show. Paul Nash comes out of it rather well, represented by a strong choice of paintings, drawings and watercolours, but John Nash suffers. This is important as John is the lesser known of the brothers, and so needs his reputation bolstered. Unfortunately, this exhibition scarcely achieves that.

I know the kind of problems that face any exhibition organiser in obtaining loans — particularly in these cash-strapped times when museums (and, even more disgracefully, some private collectors) are apt to impose charges for lending pictures. But if you’re going to go to all the bother of arranging a show, it’s worth doing it well. For example, take a look at the website Your Paintings and the list of John Nash’s 72 oil paintings held in public collections. A number of these — specifically ‘The Flooded Meadow’, ‘Panorama of Pyramids’, ‘A Berkshire Hillside’, ‘An Avenue of Elms’ and ‘Iken Suffolk’, all in the Government Art Collection — would have made a distinct difference to John’s showing here. Of course, none may have been available, but then there are ‘The Dredgers, Bristol Docks’ at Swindon Art Gallery, ‘The Viaduct’ at Leeds, ‘Destroyer in Dry Docks’ at Bradford, ‘The Dingle, Winter’ in Leicestershire.

All these are in public collections, and that’s not to mention at least two well-known private collections I can think of that have work by John which would have shown him to better advantage.

So although I welcome the initiative that led to the staging of this exhibition, I cannot help but think of it as a lost opportunity to show John Nash at his best. There are too many dark or ordinary landscapes, too many easily accessible and familiar ones, to make a persuasive argument for John as a major artist — which I consider him to be. His work is not easily explained, nor is it particularly helped by the book published to coincide with this show: Brothers in Arms: John and Paul Nash and the Aftermath of the Great War by Paul Gough (Sansom, £16.50). Although there is much good material here, the lack of illustrations (fewer than 40 colour plates, 22 of which are by Paul Nash) goes against it, and the text is a surface narrative rather than a deeply enquiring one. The best writing currently available on John Nash is by Christopher Neve in his short essay in Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th Century English Painting. Although it has long been out of print, I recommend this book unreservedly for the beauty of its writing and the imaginative intelligence of its perceptions. Seek it out second-hand or request it at your local library: you won’t regret it.

Last week the Tate announced a major show of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures for next summer, with the aim of highlighting her importance as an international artist. About time, you might say, for Hepworth (1903–75) has suffered curious bouts of neglect, which began during her lifetime and have continued sporadically ever since. When Bryan Robertson, the brilliant and innovative director of the Whitechapel Gallery, gave her a ten-year retrospective in 1962, he rescued her career from the doldrums, and now the Tate is evidently planning another such manoeuvre. The trouble is that Hepworth has always been eclipsed — to a greater or lesser degree — by her dominant and canny male contemporaries, most particularly her second husband, Ben Nicholson, and her great rival Henry Moore. Both were intensely competitive and tireless self-promoters, and Hepworth, though no wallflower, has suffered in their milieu.

Another factor against her has been the Cornwall ghettoisation syndrome. Although there is a permanent memorial to her in St Ives, in the form of Trewyn studio, where she lived and worked for more than 25 years, beautifully maintained and open to the public all year round as a museum and sculpture garden, the St Ives link can go against a reputation. Inevitably the St Ives School is well represented in the local branch of the Tate, but that has meant that these artists tend to get shown there and not in London. Both Peter Lanyon and Roger Hilton have suffered from this, and Hepworth, too, has been somewhat corralled in Cornwall. Admittedly there have been a number of recent provincial Hepworth shows to keep the flag flying (most notably the touring exhibition of her hospital drawings last year), and her hometown of Wakefield in West Yorkshire has remodelled its art gallery as the Hepworth with a marvellous permanent collection of her work, but the metropolis has continued to fight shy of recognising her properly.

The art establishment is still very London-centric, and however much provincial galleries may lead the way in stirring up interest and reassessing artists’ careers, nothing really changes until London adds its imprimatur. For example, there’s a fine-looking Hepworth show currently at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria (until 28 September). The Lake District is a popular holiday destination and I should think the show (which I haven’t yet seen — though I’ve enjoyed the handsome catalogue) will attract its fair share of visitors. But how much will this exhibition change public or establishment perceptions of Hepworth? I’d like to think that it might have some beneficial effect, but I fear we’ll have to wait for the Tate’s survey in 2015 for any significant change in Hepworth’s standing. Nevertheless Abbot Hall is well worth a visit, and the added inducement of 23 Hepworth sculptures make this a must for all art lovers in the area or passing through.

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