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John Tunnard


John Tunnard is one of the most accomplished, yet most forgotten, modernist painters from Cornwall and he was one of a cluster of significant artists inspired by Surrealism living outside St Ives.

He was born on May 7, 1900, in Bedfordshire, England. He graduated with a diploma in design from the Royal College of Art in London in 1923 and for the next four years worked as a textile designer in Manchester. In 1929 he gave up commercial work to become a painter, supporting himself as a part-time teacher of design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Tunnard showed for the first time in 1931, at the Royal Academy of Arts and continued to exhibit annually with the London Group until 1950, becoming a member in 1934.

Tunnard’s first one-man show was held at the Redfern Gallery in London in 1933. Most of the works presented depicted the landscape of Cornwall, where the artist and his wife had settled and established a hand block printed silk business. Tunnard began at this time to revive his early interest in natural science, collecting entomological specimens on the moors for the British Museum of Natural History and observing the minutiae of nature that provided a source of imagery for his art. Although he never formally joined the Surrealist movement, Tunnard participated in several of the group’s exhibitions in the 1930s, including Surrealism, held in 1939 at Gordon Fraser Gallery in Cambridge, which featured works by Max Ernst, Klee, Magritte, Miró and others. In March 1939 Peggy Guggenheim gave Tunnard a show at her gallery Guggenheim Jeune in London.

Tunnard enlisted as an auxiliary coast guard in 1940 and served for the duration of the war. During this period he participated in group shows in London at the Redfern Gallery, the Zwemmer Gallery and Alex Reid and Lefevre. The British Council included his work in three survey exhibitions in Australia and South America between1940 and 1949, and in 1944 the artist was given a one-man show at the Nierendorf Gallery in New York. Tunnard resumed teaching design in 1946 at Wellington College, Berkshire, and two years later at Penzance School of Art, Cornwall. Also in 1946 he was featured in 'Contemporary British Art', which travelled to the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, the Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, and the City Art Museum, St. Louis. In 1949 his work was shown at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris. The artist designed a mural for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the following year he showed at Durlacher Brothers in New York, where he would have a solo exhibition in 1960.

Tunnard was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1967. In 1971 he was represented in The British Contribution to Surrealism at Hamet Gallery in London. The artist died that year on December 18. In 1977 a touring show travelled from the Royal Academy, to Newlyn Art Gallery via Kettles Yard and a number of other venues.


John Tunnard is an individualist. For more than thirty years he has preferred to cut a path of his own through the jungle of modern art. He began his career, as a designer in the textile industry, and textiles is a craft that imposes on the artist a high degree of stylisation, even of abstraction. He had further disciplinary experience as a teacher of design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Then in 1930, Tunnard left London and moved to Cornwall, where together with his wife he set up a workshop for hand-blocked printed silks. As soon as he was settled in this new environment he began to paint.

From the beginning there was a mastery of oil, watercolour and gouache, but gouache remained his favoured medium and of this medium he has become one of the most skilled masters in England.

Tunnard immediately found a formal language of his own, and one that is not imitative or obviously related to the style of any of his immediate predecessors... There can be no doubt that Tunnard was inspired by the prevailing `will to abstraction', but I believe his inspiration comes from a source somewhat unusual in modern art- nature.

It is well known that Tunnard is an expert naturalist- a lepidopterist, a botanist and life-long observer of all forms of animal and plant life. He had lives with nature as intimately as Gilbert White or Thoreau, and his painting is always related to the forms of nature- not so much to the outward forms, though these do sometimes do appear as identifiable images, but rather to that inner morphology which is the secret of nature. By this I do not mean anything so obvious as the structure of organisms as revealed by science, but rather the formative principle itself, a grasp of which enables that artist to create forms that are analogous to those in nature...

Tunnard is an artist who has acquired by observation a profound intuition of the workings of nature, and this enables him to imagine forms that represent the morphology of nature in its ceaseless state of flux. That intuition prevents the artist from becoming a mere manipulator of a lifeless geometry. His forms are the inventions of his imagination but that imagination is a complete world, in some sense a prophetic world. He himself has said that after he has painted a picture he will sometimes come across a form he has used without knowing that it existed in nature...

Always in Tunnard's work, however dislocated they may be, the images have an essentially organic origin, and even when the painting is organised geometrically, with the fabric designer's precision, one is still aware of a vital process, of an implicit animism.

Animism and vitalism are similar concepts, and they imply a virtue which is more mechanical- dynamism. At times this characteristic in Tunnard's compositions threatens to disrupt the organic harmony- titles like Release, Flurry, Signal, Intersection, Flux, indicate geometrical lines of force rather than organic development. But nature, at least in its cosmic aspects, is also violent, and an art that did not reflect this fact would be too tame. The ideal is to find a synthesis of growth and form; but again, the forms that develop as living organisms.

The final effect is that of a dream-landscape, but `land' must imply more than earth, and more than land and sea. The `scape' is the limits of imaginative vision. Whatever the nature of the landscape, cosmic, telluric or, as often, submarine, the world created by this artist is a credible one. His work often reminds me of Sir Thomas Browne's Garden of Cyprus, where he speaks of those `phantasmes of sleep, which often continueth praecogitations, making Cables of Cobwebbes and Wildernesses of handsome Groves'. Sir Thomas concludes: `All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematics of the City of Heaven'. A painting by John Tunnard begins in the order of nature; it traverses the phantasms of the imagination; and then ends in the order of art, which is an analogy of the mystical mathematics of the City of Heaven.

from Herbert Read, The World of John Tunnard, The Saturday Book, volume 25, London 1965.