The Landscape of Love and Solace at Compton Verney, Warwickshire

DESPERATE about the state of her own world at the start of the Second Elizabethan Age, even with people like Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier, Dame Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976) wrote disparagingly to her son:Or are our Picassos—our Matisses or Nashes—our equivalents in the theater? Leaders like John G. and Larry seem to do nothing New. . .”

Tastes often change, but at first it is surprising that in the 1950s the names of the “Nash brothers” (both irritated by the common appellation) come so easily to mind, associated with those of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

This exhibition, which has been moved from the Towner to Eastbourne, where I first saw it as an international tennis tournament was taking place below the gallery, aims to suggest that John Northcote Nash (1893-1977) might be admitted to the pantheon.

Although born in Kensington, Nash’s deep sense of the English countryside stemmed from his childhood in Buckinghamshire and his move to Essex during World War II. Later living in Wormingford, he accepted young Ronald Blythe, “of that parish,” as a sort of surrogate son; John and Christine’s only son had died aged eight in a road accident that scarred both parents for life.

Nash commissioned Blythe to write the festival libretto for the ninth Aldeburgh Festival in 1956, and Blythe’s film about the artist for BBC2 was shown in March 1969. It is 34 minutes long. Both are presented in the exhibition. Blythe also wrote extensively about his neighbor whom he cared for in his later years and whose farm he inherited.

Readers of this journal in recent years will be familiar with its Word from Wormingford, and many will have read Blythe’s 1969 Akenfield, a fictional account of traditional rural life in a Suffolk village and a way of life that has since disappeared; much the same way Nash painted rural England, a vanishing world.

The Warwickshire landscape surrounding the house which was classically rebuilt for the Dean of Windsor in 1711 is quite different from that of the Chilterns or the Stour Valley, but the exhibition speaks to it and leads naturally out of the stately home to the landscapes and lakes that “Capability” Brown designed in Compton. Brown also designed the Estate Church (1776–79), incorporating earlier monuments from the late medieval church that had been demolished. It is said to be his only ecclesiastical commission.

Courtesy of The Private CollectionJohn Nash, Harvesting, 1946, lithograph poster

Amy Orrock curated the exhibit here for Andy Friend, who was in charge of the Towner, and who wrote a masterful biography to accompany the exhibit. Benefiting from smaller venues than at Eastbourne, with lower ceilings, she created a more accessible show based on revealing details.

In the first room, after a wall of her earlier works and complementary drawings and sketches for her brother Paul’s WWI paintings, hang side by side two iconic works that Sybil Thorndike might have had in mind.

Over the Top, 1st Artists Rifles at Marcoing, December 30, 1917 (1918) hangs next to The corn field, both painted at the same time; as war artists, the brothers, who shared a studio, were hired to paint during working hours, but devoted their evenings to their own painting.

Young Nash had served with the Artists Rifles, first as a private and then as a corporal, and after a grueling day of winter marching in the snow during the Battle of Cambrai, his battalion was called to the front line; in the first minutes of crossing the ridge, 68 men of the company of 80 were killed or wounded. Here, Edgehill, where the first battle of the English Civil War broke out in August 1642, can almost be seen through the trees of the estate.

If his painting of this bitter experience and the frozen landscape of Flanders suggests death, the burst of color of a late summer evening with corn stakes marching across a field reminds us of resurrection. For Nash, it was his own “survival thank you,” and the landscape increasingly became a comfort after the destruction of war.

During World War II he was assigned as a war artist to the Navy and painted HMS hood in drydock in Plymouth. It is as if it were a wedge of metal pushed towards us; but the work is cold and badly managed on the other hand A shipyard fire, which captured (from memory) an incident in which the artist had been involved when an air raid set fire to Swansea Docks. Who has all the vigor of John Piper St Mary le Port in East Bristol (Tate); this church was burnt down during a raid in November 1940.

Nash was unhappy not to be involved, and his wartime service did not inspire much of his art, but the coda of his work, with views of the North Norfolk coast (The breakwater1968), Skye (The Quiaring and Cullins) and Provence, finds it at its best all the way.

Visitors have the advantage of being able to view the expanded exhibition marking Grinling Gibbons’ tercentenary (Features, August 6; Arts, August 13). The elaborate police cover with its riot of cherubs (All Hallows by the Tower, London) may not be here, but the central scene is a remarkable wooden horse carved in 1686 (Royal Armouries, HM Tower of London) .

‘John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace’ is in Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 23 January 2022. Phone 01926 645500. Timed gallery tickets at: www.comptonverney.org.uk