Author Andy Friend about his biography of British artist John Nash and his military service and painting during the Great War.

John Nash at the Towner, Eastbourne until 26 September 2021

 The exhibition then moves to Compton Verney, Warwickshire from 23 October 2021 to late January 2022.


TT = Dr Tom Thorpe

AF = Any Friend

TT: In this edition of the podcast I spoke to author and curator Andy Friend about his biography of John Nash and his art during the Great War. 

AD: My interest really began after an exhibition called Revilous and Co which was an exhibition about friendship in 2017 … began touring with the Towner.

One of these was John Nash and one conversation led to another and gradually we realized that there would be no significant retrospective of John  Nash since his death. In fact, since he was very much alive in 1967 when the Royal Academy put on a blockbuster exhibition, covering six decades in which he was working in oils and very fine watercolours, he was a would engraver and photographer. A  comic artist of great furness … a wonderful botanics artist -  arguably one of the best of the first half of the 20th century and into the 60s and 70s.

So this year felt like the opportunity to address that. Of course, when we started planning it we didn't know it would be our second pandemic summer, but in fact the theme ‘Landscape of Love and Solace’ ... feels very of the moment because Nash was an artist who …  loved being in the English Countryside was also a character who experienced more than his fair share of loss and trauma during a very long life -  in different forms. One of which he should he should be proud of was his First World War experience, which we’ll come on to talk about and the Solace was his wellspring of his art was escaping into the artistic process in the face of Nature, and losing something of himself, his own troubles in the way the natural order … and so for those reasons very much of the moment …  the ‘Landscape of Love and Solace’ also represents an extraordinary setting in both working relationships … Christine Kühlenthal whom he married shortly after coming back from the trenches. Got engaged, just before he went off to the trenches. They had this extraordinary pact that if he survived that experience they would marry but they would have a completely open relationship. And as John Nash’s biographer I can only say that Christine is a central part of the story. I can tell you having been through the evidence that this was not a pledge entered into lightly but it was carried through.

I think the significant love account was up in the high 20s for John and in the medium teens for Christine by the time the research had finished. 

TT: So I understand at the time of recording which is September 2021  that you're currently involved in two exhibitions of Nash's book. Could you tell us a bit more about that? 

AF: Okay. So the exhibition here, the gallery is closed today, it’s Monday (20 September 2021).  And tomorrow it will open again for the first of its last six days in Eastbourne. So what we're talking about today is the 20th of September. In late October (23 October 2021) a selection of it will open at Compton Verney in Warwickshire and will be on display there mid to late January (2022)

But the comprehensive exhibition. Here. We'll come on to talk about the war part [Great War] but it's an exhibition that has been made possible by 26 public collections coming together including The Tate, The V&A, The British Museum and The Ashmolian … in Oxford and in Cambridge … and of course The Imperial War Museum who have lent handsomely to this exhibition and also 37 private collectors have contributed works. So it’s a large exit for covering that range of media I mentioned earlier and also including examples of other artists from Walter Sickert who was a very significant painter when John was just emerging on the  London art scene. He was part of a small group called the Cumberland Market group at that time, who picked up by older artists as and unknown who rapidly became known through two painters, like Cedric Noyes and Peter Coco who he came to know in his seventies and when painting with, so there are examples of there are principally, amongst the 300-plus of … paintings and books and so on, lithographs, and posters in the exhibition … It's mainly John Nash and a comprehensive survey of his life and work.

TT: Let’s start with Nash’s early life about his childhood family and education before the First World War.

AF: Yes. Certainly … he was the middle child of three children, older brother, Paul Nash, a better known artist for many people, these days, born in 1889, John was born four years later in 1893 and his sister Barbara four years later. They were the children of William and Caroline Nash - William a long-serving, but not particularly successful barrister-at-law … and Caroline (again from the main core family).. The great shadow over John's childhood was actually after John’s younger sister Barbara's birth, Caroline, always an anxious character, developed health problems and disappeared into the world of private sanatoria. She actually attacked John with a knife and that was the trigger for her virtual disappearance from the family for a long period - and she died in 1910. Her illness and the need for care cast a significant shadow not only over the family, but also degraded the family’s finances so John was sent off to Wellington - paid for by a relative for two years. It was actually whilst hwe was there that his mother died. I think he was literally called in by the Headmaster at the end of his first year, who said, by the way, your mother died.

Whereas Paul, slightly older, who was then at art school - at the Slade for 15 months - he was actually at his mother's bedside when she died. There's an interesting contrast in terms of their personalities anyway. Paul always more self-confident better at self-promotion, John more diffident and reticent

Paul was always fascinated thereafter by what happens to the soul after death - the plight of the human soul and that is reflected in his art in the 20s and 30s. John, in his life. always in a sense searching for the absent wound, notwithstanding the long and ultimately very successful partnership and marriage with Christine Kühlenthal.  

So he left Wellington. The family didn’t have the money to pay the premium that was required to get upper middle class kids into the xxx in those days. And so he … took out what was effectively an unpaid internship on the local paper, the Bucks Advertiser. They provided him with no money but a bicycle and he cycled around the countryside looking for stories for the paper and all the time. His observation of rural things … and nooks and crannies …  in the English Countryside … coming into play and interacting with his comic sense … because the earliest artwork we have from John are little marginal cartoons, put into letters to his absent mother and sometimes his absent father, when he was sent away to stay with relatives, put in to amuse and Christine when he matter her, when they became lovers, she had it it one she she said, your name is a humorous, but your humor is a useful cloak. And I think there was a defensiveness of John’s own zany, cartoon and comic sensibility. 

It seemed the work of a Edward Lear who had a crush on his great aunt Gussie. It never led to a full blown relationship. But it did lead to Aunt Gussie having a good deal of Edward Lear’s art in her house which John saw as a young man. And there is a lovely cartoon here called the accident which is a direct take on a Lear illustration to one of his own limericks which is an early John work. Gradually that comic sensibility did cover … drawing figures in various situations and scenes came together with this observation of rural … and he began to produce some really wonderful watercolours. John was completely untutored …  he was a great musician, an excellent gardener … 

And obviously a very good painter. But never went to art school or art or college, or music college or not as a student, anyway. He taught one day a week over the year in some art colleges . So he was untutored but Paul was at the Slade. Gradually he got into the student network where he met Dora Carrington - a very famous woman figure of the time. They became friends. He would have liked her to be his girlfriend, but she was actually interested in both other people and fundamentally more interested in her women friends than the pack of young male pursuers, and that got him in touch with the student art world and then Paul and he organised what would now be called a ‘Pop Up Exhibition’ in an upscale lampshade shop next to South Kensington Tube station in 1913.

And they put the eggs on the walls and put a sandwich board outside, which we have to design here in the exhibition and put up 25/26 works split between the two of them. And Paul had actually already attracted a lot of the attention of a man called William Rovenstei … who went on to be the principal of the Royal College of Art in the 1920s but then was a sort of all purpose cultural man about town in the Edwardian era.

He knew a lot of art collectors. He brought three of the most foremost art collections to that pop-up exhibition - it was only on for a week. They bought work, quite a lot of John's work included … And so, John went from a standing start, with never having sold anything, to …  having his work in three of the … leading private collections of the time.

EVen more importantly an artist called Spencer Gore came to visit the show. Spencer was one of life's diplomats, very good at smoothing over disputes between different fractions of the London art scene where the work Vorticists, futurists and Neo-realistics etc: 

Spencer was just about to be elected President of the new Former London Group society which went on for many decades and thereafter … dand he like John's work and within 10 weeks he got John's work into important shows: a survey of art in Brighton, one in Whitechapel another in Leeds …  and he introduced him to his friends who were these other artists such as Robert Bevin .. and Harold Gilman 

He kind of ‘took up’ John and began to teach him some of the stuff  about oil painting that he would have learned had he gone to art school - he begins, maybe we should tighten talk a little bit about the First World War and that jingoist way when young men were joining up … in August 1914. 

John tried to join up but was rejected on medical grounds. Brother Paul did join up, joining the London Artist Rifles … and in those days that you will know more about this than I do, but you could nominate at that point whether you were volunteering for home duties, or overseas service, in the very early months of the war. Paul nominated Home Duties, so he spent a bit of time guarding Richmond Park … a bit of time teaching map reading in Romford … and was eventually commissioned which I'll come on to in 1917 in France. John basically spent his (early part of the war) … as a special Constable. He made Bell Tents and tense hammered rivets into canvas in a factory in Royal Park. He was a clerk  in the Ministry of community … and painting  sort of by night and at weekends … until his wife to be Christine … who suffered from Anti-Hun feelings, the family … although they had been living for donkey’s years in Gerrards Cross, her father a German emigre in the 1880s, her mother Scottish. She had been a student at the Slade, a very fine painter herself, and she visited the pop-up exhibition I told you about … in fact John wrote to his friend Dora Carrington of ‘your friend, the Dow Eyed Miss K’ … and then its very interesting looking at the diaries … and letters, they saw each other about every month for the following three years, came across each other … at various things, but … and then very suddenly, 10 weeks before John was going to go into barracks - he eventually decided as conscription was coming, that he’d have another go, and he was accepted … in the Artist Rifles as a private … going it at that level and he joined in … November 1916. But 10 weeks before that suddenly John and Christine started seeing each other every day … I think there were three or four days in 10 weeks when they did not 

They became lovers and made that pledge to each other … I referred to earlier … 

John then went … so his war experience … he was in barracks in East London, he was in the draft that went out just at the beginning of November 1916, to northern France, it was a terrible Channel Crossing and a prelude to a pretty gruelling experience over the following 15 months. It began with … six months of …  industrial work … getting supplies from here to there … working on the railways etc: Although he was in a … that was a nursery for potential future officer commissions … 'he had a bit of a public school background … he was curiously overlooked, he became known as a ‘good man’ … as a section leader, he was trained within the Mills bomb and other things like that and then gradually worked his way out to the front line.

He was then in the front line at the Battle of Marcoing …  and I’ll come on to talk about this experience in terms of the creative work he created there … but it was he who was involved in the counter attack - the Germans had attacked on the morning of December of 30th 1917. They’d overrun the British front line - so the second line was what was being defended. John had been resting in the Reserve line with his mates, was rushed back into the battle and they were sent  over the top immediately. They arrived in the second trench and in the following 20 minutes nearly everyone who was with was killed - he was very lucky to escape with his life. And he was then granted … he had just been made a Corporal, within the last couple weeks … he was granted home leave for two weeks … what he craved throughout that 14, 15 months in France, and he was sent home, and whilst he was at home he succeeded in being appointed as one Department of Information, the Ministry of Information, as an official War artist … but that appointment coincided with the German Spring Offensive  … and so War artists were no longer being sent back to France.

He was then, if you imagine situation, in a long low agricultural building in the middle of Chalfont St Peter … an abandoned herb drying shed, where in the middle of June 1918 he is  moving his painting things into one end of the herb shed because he is required now for six months by the Ministry, to … under what's called a ‘whole load of contract’, everything you did was to go to the Crown and the Government and artists employed under this basis formed the genesis of the Imperial Museum collection - but he had to do it all by recall because he had been forbidden to draw in the trenches - positively forbidden to draw. So he brought back no sketch book. No works in progress. All he had was a few marginal drawings in letters … not this time, ‘during this era of the drawings. He was pristine backed. ‘

So they recorded in almost comic terms some trench life realities. The first drawing he did in the middle of June is a little watercolor we have here in the gallery, it shows men in a shellhole in a snowbound … it is the situation he was in the week before that  … over-the-top experience … three nights running up, leading up to Christmas 1917. He was sent out leading a party of four to an advance post to watch for sudden attacks. And this little watercolor shows these four figures, two awake looking out towards the unseen enemy, two hunkered down trying to get a bit of rest and there is a very direct connection between that watercolor and his situation as an official war artist because from there he wrote what was to become his last letter to Christine from France - he didn't know it at the time but it was a Christmas letter and he enclosed a scrap of paper in it, which was from a notebook, uncharacteristically, jittery writing in pencil from John slantwise, across the page. You can almost feel the cold coming across this bit of paper. It’s in the Imperial War Museum archives, and it is a ‘to whom it may concern letter’ addressed to the Ministry of Information, ‘and I hear you're about to appoint war artists. Could you please consider me?’ I’ve been in the front line for 15 months. I know stuff (in brackets). And I will do authentic work. 

And they did appoint him.

And then the next thing he did after that was a painting, which I mention, looking at now … simple Fresco lines giving it impact. It shows six Tommy's marching along a row - it memorializes his first …  experience after that channel Crossing. He had a 30 mile March in the rain with the other members of that draft, the two French officers, long sweeping blue cloaks on horseback. Just angled away in the background and broken buildings and the grey sky and windblown clouds … and it's very interesting because contrasting works that artists like never … his  own brother for measure done which were sort of cubo-futurist in their sort of composition and really gave the message, you know, in the darkness and chaos of war the individual is barely distinguishable from the masses. The mass, you know, human material.

This painting … draws you in because these six guys are marching and they're all, in a way, locked in their own thoughts. And you begin to think about what was the reality of life for these people. And he went on over the succeeding months to do a painting called ‘The Bridge over the Arras-Lens Railway’, which was about his time working on the railways, and a number of other ones that you can relate back to the specifics of his career in the Artist’s Rifles. And then in August 1918, in that herb shed, he did a painting which many of your listeners may know, which is called the ‘painter top’ First Artists Rifles and now it is an extraordinary work in which every element of the design provides a sense of unfolding tragedy … it’s him memorializing the people he knew who are now dead … 

There are 16 figures - key figures in the water - the brown gash of the earth, the white snowbound no man’s land, two guys are already dead and shot … and have fallen back into the trench, others are clambering out … about to die. Others are looking forward as they march out into no man’s land with a sense of sort of fatalism built into their postures and its got a very restrained power … it looks like a Bruegel snow scene with a very different subject with a low horizon, rolling sky and yellow gas cloud - an extraordinary painting, which when it was exhibited after the war in December 1919 at Burlington House was the … signature covering each of that great exhibition of War Art … and was also the painting that those who knew the sorry and pity of the Western Front really responded to  … and it was … amusing … in once sense he writes … having done this painting. He writes to his handler in the ministry. He says, ‘I've done this, ‘ John diffident as ever, ‘I’ve done this painting. I think you may like a counter-attack’ and the handler right back to this and says ‘Yes. Yes. Yes. When are you going to do the bigger one … you should be getting on with that. And all these artists were being employed on this horror … in this contract they had to do one major painting that was intended to go in the memorial hall after the war. The memorial was never built, but those paintings survive and are the jewels in the crown of the first world war art collection for the UK.

And so, the extraordinary thing to think about is that while John was sizing up what he was going to do on his major canvas at one end of this herb shed, this agricultural building, Paul (Nash)  had moved in at the other end and was painting a painting called ‘The Menin Road’ and that came out of his last experience.

So just backed Paul’s war experience. As I said, he was on home duties at first then getting in in 1917 just as the attrition rate that all of those people were being sent out and we've commissioned officers to the various fronts in France and elsewhere.

He nearly goes to Mesopotamia, but has an illness and lands up in the Ypres Salient for 12 weeks. And then has,  what could happen to any of us, has a back accident. He steps back in the trench, jars his back, hurts his ribs and is sent out the front line.

And because the British authorities were clearing the base of the field and base hospitals that week because of an upcoming offensive at which they anticipated tens of thousands of casualties. He was gradually sent back step by step because of his bad back and landed up in the Swedish Hospital in marylebone, with about 40 sketches he had, because his Commanding Officer had certified that they were of no military importance.  So in complete contrast to John, who didn't draw as a private. This officer was allowed to draw and take his work back. He then while he was in the hospital, worked these up and they became the basis of an exhibition, in the Leicester Galleries in the middle of London, which really introduced the style of war art of which Paul Nash is now best known. 

So John still out in France ins biopsy and Paul is Commissioned as a war artist and then in November, so before the Battle of Marcoing,  before John kands up at Cambrai, he goes back to France and actually finds John in his third or fourth day back in France, but Paul unlike John has been equipped with a car, a chauffeur, a batman in which to tour the battlefields. And so he does the sketches that become the Menin Road. The Menin Road, for those of you who know it, is a long painting, it is a Dante-esque vision of Hell in which the very clouds in the sky in the universe have turned entirely evil and he is party to the putrid destruction, the standing water, the tin figures, the sense of malevolence has overcome the natural world. John, by contrast, always had an enormous faith in the ultimate finality of the natural order …  does a painting called  …. and it is a painting, which he sets it to .. Oppy Wood … where he first went into the front line … to be sort of blooded  to see if he’s  windy. He sets this painting of the first early evening hours which in the trenches I'm told, tended to be more relaxed than either, Twilight, or dawn … the hours before dawn both of the potential harbingers of sudden attack. 

So the sun is behind us as the viewer we’re looking at these two guys looking out. Yes, over a broken landscape pitted with shell holes and so on, and there's wood, and the remains of construction to the right.

But behind that is this absolutely wonderful blue sky with these high scoring clouds arching in from either side, which some of our visitors to the exhibition have said, they're like angels and they are there like an element of a Renaissance Altarpiece - and it really gives an entirely different message. You know, with that, they're in ‘the Music of the Spheres’ -  is not religious in the conventional sense … It is very spiritual to the extent that it is suggesting a natural order, different from and removed from the madness of war that we see unfolding before us in the foreground, middle-ground. And that sense of the benign intuitive nature

So John and Paul. They're in the herb shed for several months. They are getting pretty. Bloody down brooding on. What was still going on in France that summer of 1918, and they made a little local variations, in their contract, which is that, which they don't inform the Ministry about,  but which they say that after 6:30, in the evening. We've done our times but the Crown we will go out the English Countryside and paint the sort of stuff we were painting before the war and which we want to do after the war and about 500 yards behind where the herb shed was - it no longer exists, one can walk into the fields and find … the site of one of the most famous 20th century landscapes in the Tate Collection. It’s called ‘The Cornfield’ set at sunset, like Oppy Wood, the low sun, slanting through a graphic Gap in the tree line across a recently harvested field with corn stooks in the foreground - is a sort of hymn  to the fecundity of Nature. And John said, I painted it in sheer relief at being still alive and back in the English countryside … So it was kind of like a coda to his war work, but extraordinary, to think about that while he was painting ‘Over The Top’, this kind of hymn, this sort of purging (of the Internet) not an entire  …. like all his life … he thought it was sheer, bloody murder. What happened that day, that December evening, but it is a memorializing of his fallen comrades. And it was a tragic and in a sense a bitter work.

But at the same time on an easel, next door to this, he is painting an extraordinary contrast between the two works created at the same …. 

I've been talking with pausing … and Tom for a while. You want to ask you another question or are we running out of time?

TT: I think we’re running out of time ! I think that's pretty well covered everything I need and that's fine. I was just going to do something. So where can people learn more about your work and see the John Nash exhibition. And where should they go, if they're listening to this podcast after January 2022?

AF: So, so, I'm talking about - the biography of John Nash. 

The works that are here are mostly … save and except the Cornfield, that is the the Imperial War … didn't like having saving except for the corn field, which is in the Tate Collection normally are in the Imperial collection. And he was briefly a War Artist in the Second World War. II 6 months. You didn't like it that much, it's gonna be like being a spectator. Having been a participant. He actually said you rights to his friend Eric Revillious. 

Expert in camouflage and dec …

And so there are words from the Second World War and also different experiences.

One of the interesting things that we found out in the research, their commission.

The second world war is that John had a significant part to play in Operation Fortitude, South which was subplot of An Overlord and the D-Day Landings Fortitude, South is about creating deception in both from the cyber world and the real world of inflatable landing craft Etc up and down the south coast to trick the Germans into thinking, the real Invasion would come across the part of the pas de Calais. And was not, the D-Day Landings very successful bit of subterfuge, action. 

So John was involved in that and so people are particularly interested in the front or the war as The IWM is a key place to cover as much as I can in that book.

And sorry. Your other question was about the exhibition.

What is going from here to Compton Verney Will be available up until mid to late January 2022 is a selection of what he's here, which covers many of the things we haven't had time to talk about today …  is marvelous wood engraving is botanical, works the other tragedies that befell him in Christine. They lost their only child at the age, four and a half was all an accident, but that little into other things in their life, which are reflected …