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Venice in Peril, Part 2

You've just been to one exhibition about Canaletto and Venice, and then a second one comes along straight away, a bit like delayed vaporettos on the Grand Canal.  Canaletto's Venice Revisited at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich contrasted the painter's classic views of the lagoon city with the threat it faces today from rising sea levels and mass tourism, and  Canaletto and Melissa McGill: Performance and Panorama  at the Lightbox in Woking takes a similar tack. But if Greenwich's display of statistics about population decline and increasing flooding and an array of disposable plastic boots for tourists left us rather depressed, we found something surprisingly soothing and uplifting about the American artist Melissa McGill's attempt to alert us to the same problems.  Back in 2019, McGill created the Red Regatta project, which saw dozens of traditional Venetian sailing boats hoisted with sails she had hand-painted in varying shades of red traversing the ci

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John Nash: The Rhythm in the Landscape

It's a beguiling, entrancing landscape, yet somehow also very reassuring. The year is 1918, and John Nash is back in England after many months of service on the Western Front in World War I, one of the few survivors from his company. While working by day on paintings to commemorate the conflict as an official war artist, in the evening he's able to leave the memories of the slaughter behind to work for himself, on pictures that purged the horror of the trenches.
This is The Cornfield, and it's probably the stand-out painting in a really outstanding exhibition at Towner Eastbourne, John Nash: The Landscapes of Love and Solace, the first retrospective devoted to the life and work of the artist, the less well-known younger brother of Paul Nash, in more than half a century.

You can see in this painting a fascination with shapes, patterns and shadows that characterises the best of Nash's landscapes: the angular forms of the row of corn sheaves, their edges highlighted by the rays of the evening sun; the shadows cast by the sheaves and across the field behind, and the textile-like pattern of the field in the foreground. It was made in Gloucestershire, near where the Nash brothers shared a studio in a disused herb-drying shed. They agreed that their war-related work should cease at 6 every day, leaving the hours after that to escape the trauma. 

And you're confronted with that trauma very early on in this show, in the shape of Over the Top, which became the signature image for the 1919 exhibition The Nation's War Art. It's based on the moment at the end of 1917 in which Nash was ordered into action. Some of the troops are dead without leaving the trench, some have scarcely made it out into the snow. There's a resignation with which the men trudge towards all-but-certain death. The brown of the trench walls is like a giant dried bloodstain across the canvas. In his 80s, Nash recalled the attack as "pure bloody murder.... the vivid memory of the occasion provoked whatever intensity may be found in it."
Equally vivid is this much smaller watercolour, chalk and ink work, A Bombing Post in the Snow, probably the first work Nash finished as a war artist. It recreates the night he spent before Christmas Eve 1917 in a shell hole 700 yards in advance of the British lines. In a letter to his wife he said that on leaving the post they "passed a Boche officer dead on the road, frozen over and sparkling.... nothing unusual for we were just as crystallised, only living."
The most prominent place in this exhibition is reserved for Oppy Wood, a strikingly bright painting despite the atmosphere of malevolence emanating from it. It's a ravaged landscape: the trees reduced to mere stumps, the gashes of trenches, bits of barbed wire and metal. Shells explode in the distance. Yet this is early evening, a time of relative calm on the front -- not the moment for the enemy to launch a surprise attack. 
While in the trenches, Nash cultivated a quiet fatalism. Back safe at home and turning his experiences into paint, he felt "a strange pride in having managed to endure it and come out alive and sane".  

These images of World War I play a big role in Nash's career, and that's why they're right there at the start of this show. Look left from the devastation of Oppy Wood and there is the golden antidote, The Cornfield, perfectly placed on a rich blue painted wall to draw you in to the next room where the comprehensive examination of Nash's life story really begins. 

In the young Nash's landscapes, such as this Gloucestershire view from just before the war, you can see that early fascination with the harvested corn, the interest in shadow as the light breaks through the cloud, and the rhythm of the mown field, looking like an undulating piece of corduroy in the foreground. 
But these delightful landscapes were not to provide a secure lifestyle. As with so many artists of the period, Nash and his wife Christine led something of a hand-to-mouth existence. They lived a simple life in rural retreats producing their own food. He earned his bread as an illustrator, and there are plenty of examples of books, prints, calendars, woodcuts, engravings and the like demonstrating his mastery of graphic art.   
The curators have assembled an extensive collection of these fine works, including this depiction of Deadly Nightshade from a volume on Poisonous Plants. But money was always short. In 1924, when he and Christine were down to their last few shillings, he raised £35 from the sale of an oil painting of A Window in Bucks, depicting a view from their house in Meadle, Buckinghamshire. The painting was used for many years as a design for a book token. The original sold again earlier this year -- for £375,000.  

There are not so many oil landscapes from the 1930s, but here's one that stood out for us, of Colchester Docks. The patterns made by the barrels, masts and port buildings fascinate, and they're reminiscent of works created by Eastbourne's own Eric Ravilious, a contemporary who also loved painting harbour scenes. 
Nash was no stranger to tragedy, even apart from his wartime experiences. As a child, his mother suffered mental illness and once attacked him with a knife. He and his wife lost their only child, a late baby, in the mid-1930s when the four-year-old boy fell from a moving car and was fatally injured. A few years later, war came again, and Nash served another stint as an official artist. 

He resumed landscape painting after the conflict, but one wall of oils made during the 1950s shows how his touch seemed to have deserted him, that eye for pattern lost in a succession of shapeless and uninspiring murky green and brown canvases. No wonder he feared he was "played out" as a painter and turned to Edward Bawden for advice. 

"Go back to the essential J.N. which is preserved in the early work" with its "much more obvious interest in rhythm," Bawden wrote. "So direct, so unforced, yet so arresting." 

And it's reassuring to find out that the essential John Nash did return before the end of his long career. A selection of oils and watercolours from the Norfolk coast in the 1960s provides the evidence.
Any concerns about visiting this show while the coronavirus pandemic continues? There's no signed one-way system, but it's an expansive and airy space, and we never felt it was crowded while going round, even though there was a steady flow of visitors on a weekday afternoon. Most exhibition-goers, though not all, were masked. We found it a relaxed experience. 

It's really quite an in-depth show of Nash's work, though, with lots of small graphic works to look at close up, and you may feel, as we did, the need to take a break half way through in the Towner's cafe, just across the corridor from the exhibition space. You can recharge with a grandstand view of the green lawns of the Devonshire Park tennis courts, the venue for the annual pre-Wimbledon tournament. 

Practicalities

John Nash: The Landscapes of Love and Solace runs at Towner Eastbourne until September 26. The gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday from 1000 to 1700, as well as on August Bank Holiday Monday. A standard ticket including Gift Aid costs £12.50 and can be booked online here

The Towner is about 10 minutes walk from Eastbourne station, which you can reach from London Victoria in less than 90 minutes by an hourly direct train. Allow yourself a good 2 1/2 hours if you want to take in the full breadth of this exhaustive exhibition with many works from private collections.  

If you live north of London or can't make it to Eastbourne, there's a further chance to see the John Nash show when it moves on to Compton Verney in Warwickshire from October 23 to January 23. 

Images

John Nash, The Cornfield, 1918, Tate
John Nash, ‘Over the Top' 1st Artists Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917, 1918. © Imperial War Museum
John Nash, A Bombing Post in the Snow, 1918, Imperial War Museums
John Nash, Oppy Wood, 1918. © Imperial War Museum 
John Nash, A Gloucestershire Landscape, 1914, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
John Nash, Deadly Nightshade (from Poisonous Plants), 1927. Courtesy of Private Collection
John Nash, Colchester Docks, 1934, Private collection
John Nash, The Breakwater, 1968, Private collection

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