John Tunnard was born in 1900 in Sandy, Bedfordshire, the son of the painter J.C. Tunnard. After attending Charterhouse School, he went on to study at the Royal College of Art in 1923 where he completed a diploma in design. He subsequently moved to Manchester where he worked as a textile designer, a career he abandoned in 1929 to become a painter. Over the next five years, Tunnard became affiliated with the London Group, becoming a member in 1934. He first exhibited in 1931 at the Royal Academy of Arts and held his first solo exhibition in 1933 at the Redfern Gallery in London. The majority of works exhibited depicted the Cornish landscape where he moved in 1930 with his wife to set up a printed silk business. These early works engage with a naturalistic aesthetic, depicting scenes of the coastlines near Tunnard’s home Cadgwith. Stylistic comparisons can be drawn with the Neo Romantic works of figures such as Paul Nash, particularly through the use of distorted perspective and foreshortening that draws the viewer’s eye to a central focus point. Just like Nash, these stylistic techniques hint at a future engagement with Surrealism. His more surrealist works found their roots in Tunnard’s fascination with natural science and more specifically, entomology and geomorphic imagery.
Although he never fully joined the Surrealist movement in Britain, Tunnard exhibited in numerous Surrealist exhibitions in the late 1930s. In 1939 his work was featured in ‘Surrealism’ at the Gordon Fraser Gallery in Cambridge alongside the artists, Paul Klee, Joan Miro and Max Ernst. In the same year Peggy Guggenheim gave Tunnard a solo show that was held at Guggenheim Jeune in London. With the advent of war, Tunnard enlisted as an auxiliary coast guard but continued to participate in a number of shows which toured internationally to Australia, South America and New York. Following the war in 1946 his work was featured in the Contemporary British Art exhibition that travelled to various locations in America. Tunnard was commissioned by the Arts Council to design a mural for the Festival of Britain in 1951, a celebration of modernist art and design showcasing artists including Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.
Tunnard continued to exhibit throughout the subsequent decades and was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1967. Following his death in December 1971, Tunnard’s contribution to British art and his legacy has been celebrated at numerous shows at institutions including Pallant House.