Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Brothers in Art: John and Paul Nash

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Brothers in Art: John and Paul Nash

Article excerpt

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. …

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