In the 1930s and 1940s John Tunnard managed to transform himself from a creator of modest landscapes into a highly respected modernist painter, while remaining physically located in a remote Cornish fishing village.1Mark Glazebrook (ed.), John Tunnard 1900–1971, Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1977, p. 20. Tunnard understood the legacy of Cubism and borrowed formal ideas from Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and others. His paintings, with their complex use of multiple perspectives and transparent, wheeling forms, have been aptly described as being akin to Alexander Calder’s mobile sculptures rendered in two dimensions.2In 1946 it was noted how in Tunnard’s Moa ‘the composition rotates on a pivot, like a Calder Mobile’; see John Anthony Thwaites, ‘The technological eye’, Art Quarterly, Spring 1946, in Glazebrook, p. 50.
In the mid to late 1930s Tunnard absorbed influences from both Abstraction and Surrealism, showing in group exhibitions devoted to each of these movements. Tunnard was a keen ornithologist and, as such, bird and egg motifs feature in his paintings, along with musical notations and echoes of the rugged terrain of the Cornish coast. He experimented with Surrealist ideas of ‘automatic art’, letting his eyes and hand wander randomly when creating his work in his chosen medium. He revelled in combining multiple techniques, inviting carefully ruled lines and circles into dialogue with the creative freefall of sprayed glazes, sandpapering and decalcomania, the Surrealist technique of blotting paper onto wet pigment to produce unexpected and often delightful mottlings of colour and texture. Tunnard’s biographers Alan Peat and Brian Whitton have explored his methods and symbols in detail, noting how Tunnard’s mature works ‘blended objective aspects of the natural landscape, the flora and fauna of his surroundings, within his own fantasy landscape’.3Alan Peat & Brian A. Whitton, John Tunnard: His Life and Work, Scolar, Aldershot, 1997, p. 46. Certainly Tunnard’s work offers some of the most seductively scarified surfaces to be found in twentieth-century British painting. It is debatable to what extent his passions for entomology and lepidoptera informed his obsession with investing every part of a painting with its own minutely textured landscape, although a fascination with the microscopic does penetrate his art to its very core.
In 1952, using funds inherited from his mother’s estate, John Tunnard and his wife settled in Lamorna, a picturesque village on the Cornish coast at the southern-most tip of Great Britain, which had been popular with painters of the Newlyn SchoolA colony of artists based near the picturesque fishing village of Newlyn in Cornwall, from the 1880s onwards. since the late nineteenth century. This isolated spot, inhabited by Neolithic stone circles, ancient copper and tin mines and perilous cliffs, fascinated the artist. The Tunnards acquired Trethinick, a residence that came with an artistic pedigree, having formerly been Dame Laura Knight’s house and studio. Captivated by the beauty of the Lamorna valley, Tunnard started the Grumbla Club, an informal club for himself and a small group of friends who shared his passion for the geological history and the botanical and entomological wealth of the region. The club was named after another striking Cornish valley, and its members went on walking expeditions throughout Cornwall.4ibid. p. 100.
The geologist Rudolph Glossop was one of the Grumblas and he recalled vividly a visit he made with Tunnard to the neighbouring region of the Levant Mine:
Some of our expeditions were geological. From Cadgwith we went to the north coast of West Penwith, which he then thought grim, to the old Levant Mine, where I had worked underground in 1922. There he saw Levant Zawn, a deep gully in the cliff, its rocky sides brilliantly stained with green and red minerals of copper and iron. Within a few weeks he had painted Levant Mine, which now hangs in the art gallery of Melbourne.5Rudolph Glossop, ‘John Tunnard. A personal appreciation’, in Glazebrook, p. 9.
The zawn, a Cornish word meaning chasm, had first caught Tunnard’s attention a decade earlier when he painted Levant Zawn, 1947 (British Council Collection, London), a slightly more naturalistic depiction of the jutting cliffs, lonely architecture and industrial detritus of this site.6Although Glossop referred specifically to the Melbourne picture of 1959 from the chronology of his reminiscences, it seems more likely that he was actually recalling this earlier trip to Levant Zawn in 1947.
The Levant Mine, now a National Trust property, operated from 1820 to 1930 and was renowned for the wealth of copper and tin brought forth from its deep shafts, which extended far out beneath the Atlantic Ocean. It stands dramatically isolated on the edge of a cliff, adjacent to the weathered zawn that plunges vertiginously down to threatening wave-tossed rocks. Tunnard’s The Levant Mine, 1959, has a brooding and somewhat hellish air. Its bleak buildings and rusted pylons stand like abandoned sentinels in a sulfurous landscape, with only the creak of settling metal and the forlorn quaver of wind on wire animating their semi-fossilised forms. This mine had suffered an appalling tragedy three years before Rudolph Glossop went to work there as a young man, with thirty-one miners being killed during a disastrous collapse of the man-engine lift in October 1919. One wonders whether he and Tunnard discussed this threatening aspect of the lonely Levant Mine, and if knowledge of this dark past may have informed the Dantesque atmosphere of the present painting.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Text adapted from Modern Britain 1900–1960, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007
Mark Glazebrook (ed.), John Tunnard 1900–1971, Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1977, p. 20.
In 1946 it was noted how in Tunnard’s Moa ‘the composition rotates on a pivot, like a Calder Mobile’; see John Anthony Thwaites, ‘The technological eye’, Art Quarterly, Spring 1946, in Glazebrook, p. 50.
Alan Peat & Brian A. Whitton, John Tunnard: His Life and Work, Scolar, Aldershot, 1997, p. 46.
ibid. p. 100.
Rudolph Glossop, ‘John Tunnard. A personal appreciation’, in Glazebrook, p. 9.
Although Glossop referred specifically to the Melbourne picture of 1959 from the chronology of his reminiscences, it seems more likely that he was actually recalling this earlier trip to Levant Zawn in 1947.