Selected by Amelia Williamson

Our Artwork of the Week is a late landscape painting by British artist John Tunnard, known for his complex exploration of depth and space, textured paint surfaces and his use of technological themes. After a touring retrospective exhibition of his work in 1977, there was a lapse in public knowledge of the artist, despite his work existing in the Tate, Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The continued scholarship of Brian Whitton and a major retrospective held at Pallant House Gallery in 2010 did much to rectify this.


Initially training and working in design in the 1920s, Tunnard turned his attention to painting towards the end of the decade, securing his first solo show of traditional Cornish landscapes at Redfern in 1933. From the mid-1930s his work showed an affinity with Surrealism, in the reimagining of English landscapes in dissected biomorphic forms and distorted perspective.  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 this same year Peggy Guggenheim staged a solo show for Tunnard at her gallery Guggenheim Jeune on Cork Street. She hailed him a ‘genius’ and Alfred H. Barr, founder of New York's Museum of Modern Art, bought his pictures for the MoMA collection, where they were seen and admired by Mark Rothko.


As evidenced by this painting, Tunnard became increasingly interested in developments and engineering from the 1940s onwards, responding in his work to developments such as oscillography, radar stations along the Cornish coast, nuclear weapons and the Space Race. This painting is a fascinating fusion of early surreal paintings of the Cornish landscape with illusions to outer space in the orbital composition and the deep purple colouring of the atmosphere.


Tunnard was also a master of illusion, exploiting his medium to confound the viewer’s sense of recession and foregrounding. In this work, horizontal swathes of carefully modulated crayon suggest a receding landscape, yet the horizon line is depicted in bold white chalk, dispelling the illusion of three-dimensional depth by drawing attention to the planar surface of the canvas.


Both in its use of medium to create and dispel illusion and rather unusual visualisation of technological themes, ‘Shadowed Spectra’ encapsulates what makes Tunnard’s work distinctive in 20th century British painting.


JOHN TUNNARD (British 1900-1971)

Shadowed Spectra, 1966
Chalk, crayon, pastel and watercolour on paper
38 x 56 cm / 15 x 22 in
Signed & dated 
September 21, 2020