John Tunnnard, Two Heads, Watercolor and Gouache, 1950s, Picture, Surrealism



JOHN TUNNARD, A.R.A. (British 1900-1971) : Two Heads Executed in 1955 Signed and dated ' John Tunnard / 55 ' lower right and on the reverse Titled, signed & dated verso Watercolor and gouache Provenance: Private collection. Exhibited: McRoberts & Tunnard, John Tunnard, 26 November-23 December 1959, no.19, illustrated. Hartnoll & Eyre Gallery, John Tunnard, 6 - 30 April 1971, no.18 Literature: John Tunnard, His Life & Work, pp.185-6, no.649, illustrated 49, (Peat & Whitton) Related to: Head, 1950, P&W no 600, Witt Collection. Untitled (head with bird), c1955, P&W no 650. Apollo, 1952, P&W catalogue 614. Portrait, c 1958, P&W no 683, Leeds Museums & Galleries. Self portrait, 1959, P&W no 711, National Portrait Gallery. Sheet height 25 cm., 9 ¾ in., length 35 cm., 13 ¾ in., Floated in a painted, moulded frame Frame height 54 cm., 21 in., length 64 cm., 25 in.,

Two Heads is a gouache and watercolor work on paper that Tunnard completed in 1955 and that shows two highly stylised heads, one white, one red, superimposed over what appears to be a view of the sea from a high vantage point. The view is likely to have been inspired, if not directly taken from, by the actual views from Tunnard's home in Lamorna not far from St. Ives.

The sea is also rendered in a stylised succession of waves while the sky is depicted in red tones, implying perhaps sunset or sunrise. The ship motifs have been placed over the sea in a playful, hardly naturalistic fashion, adding to the dreamlike atmosphere of the picture. The heads appear to depict two female figures with slightly exaggerated features: elongated noses that seem to extend to the eyebrows under which Tunnard has added large prominent eyes.

The heads however do not look at us, their gaze appears to be as lost in space as they are in time. They could be mythical characters from a long lost time (the features are not unlike those found in the Egyptian or Greek sculpture) or, considering the seaweed or coral motifs that run over the faces as if indicating that these are underwater creatures. The white head is particularly striking giving such an illusion of three-dimensionality that it seems to come off the surface as if it was a marble or a plaster bust.

A painting by John Tunnard begins in the order of nature; it traverses the phantasms of the imagination; and then ends in the order of art, which is an analogy of the mystical mathematics of the City of Heaven.' (Herbert Read)

The death of Tunnard's mother freed him from financial insecurity which had a significant impact on his artistic development in the 1950's. In 1952 he bought Trethinick which is on the Penwith peninula four miles south of Penzance situated in the dense woodland of the Lamorna Valley, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Lamorna itself is a picturesque Cornish cove with a small granite harbour, nestling within granite cliffs to the East and West and a row of granite cottages. The seascape in Two Heads is a typical view that Tunnard could have seen from the cliffs around Lamorna.

The house was surrounded by 6 acres of 'impenetrable jungle' which the Tunnards transformed, ' Near the house he made a lawn, herbaceous borders and a rockery, on the valley side he planted rhododendron, azaleas, magnolias and ericas and in the swamp where twayblade grew wild, he planned and partly completed a bog-garden with gunnera and primulas. It is amazing what he accomplished ' (Rudolph Glossop).

Much time and energy was spent moving into a house with artistic associations (Trethinick was formerly the home of Dame Laura Knight) and reclaiming the garden. More significantly walking extensively over the Lizard, exploring the mines and studying the wildlife and deepening his fascination for entomology, were critical to Tunnard's artistic development but led to a sharp reduction in output in the 1950's. He kept sparse records at this time and had no close links with any commercial gallery so works were not publicly exhibited and he would have almost certainly sold works privately. '

Tunnard immediately found a formal language of his own, and one that is not imitative or obviously related to the style of any of his immediate predecessors... There can be no doubt that Tunnard was inspired by the prevailing `will to abstraction', but I believe his inspiration comes from a source somewhat unusual in modern art- nature.' (Herbert Read) In 1955 Tunnard told a planning enquiry that the inspiration for his work came almost entirely from Lamorna and the country west of it.

John also built his own studio. ' No one saw John when he painted, for then solitude was essential to him. The studio was quite apart….. at Lamorna in a small corrugated iron shack, hidden in woodland beside the stream. When painting he entered a state of concentration and absolute absorption such as one associates with philosophers and creative mathematicians….Once started, he worked with extraordinary energy and intensity. Then he would relax and go back to the cliffs and the moors,, where he found the natural shapes which inspired and inform even the more abstract and geometrical of his later pictures.' (Rudolf Glossop) '

The Tunnards led a secluded life, 'The nearest I got to seeing John Tunnard was thro' Bryan Wynter's telescope…he was a complete recluse and wisely kept out of all the machinations of St Ives…he made some Fine paintings out of his isolation ' (Sven Berlin). On Mark Rothko's visit to the Newlyn Gallery in 1958 Michael Canney comments 'he (Rothko) expressed amazement that Tunnard, who had long been recognised by the avant-guard in New York was still alive, but he was, and still at work'. However, Tunnard was not a recluse and hosted many lively parties in the 1950's. 'When they gave parties, which were legendary, they went on until six in the morning. The old art student days still lingered on. Hospitality was generous, excellent and copious drink and food. John did brilliant soft-shoe dances with bowler hat for the assembled guests, in fact he must have been one of the few remaining experts in this genre ! There was a strong touch of the music hall in his character, like Sickert who Bob Tunnard studied under. They had great charm, and were quite unique, a product of a more leisurely age that was electrified by the twenties and thirties, the jazz age, Dada, Art Deco and the Moderne. ' Michael Canney Exhibitions:

SIGNIFICANCE The direct affect of the move to Trethinik and the Tunnards secluded lifestyle was that from 1952-1957 only 54 works are recorded and his oeuvre included more representational elements paraphrasing landscapes more legibly. The seascape in Two Heads is a good example of this and notable as it appears it is one of a small number of works where a seascape features so prominently and we believe it is the only picture where Tunnard has included ships at sea.

In the 1950s a romantic element re-emerges, most likely influenced by Trethinik which was imbued with romantic, painterly associations and the surrounding land and seascapes. His use of the female form in Two Heads combined with the juxtaposition of the warm reds and cool blues give the work a sensual overtone as do the contrasting greys, blacks and deep blues of the sea. The red sky of daybreak or sunset heightens the mood suggesting beginnings and endings, and the taut strings between the heads create tension,

' It is the felicitous blending of inner poetic vision with a dispassionate and active intelligence that gives an inescapable quality to his work… acutely outlines plans… cut by linear patterns suggest a serious preoccupation with complex organization ' (Margaret Breuning). Tunnard's experience as a textile designer in the 1920's was pivotal to the complex compositional balance of his work. This influence is most evident in works from the 1950's which emphasise repetition of form, contrast and balance of color, geometric organisation, and the relationship of objects to their surroundings.

In the catalogue raisonne Peat & Whitton comment; Some of the more effective paintings from this period were ones which reflected strongly on his training as a designer. ' Two Heads ' for instance shows compositional devices which lend a feeling of unity to the painting, such as the placing of the darker head and the related light yacht alongside the light head and dark yacht.

'Tunnard is an artist who has acquired by observation a profound intuition of the workings of nature, and this enables him to imagine forms that represent the morphology of nature in its ceaseless state of flux. That intuition prevents the artist from becoming a mere manipulator of a lifeless geometry. His forms are the inventions of his imagination but that imagination is a complete world, in some sense a prophetic world. He himself has said that after he has painted a picture he will sometimes come across a form he has used without knowing that it existed in nature ' (Herbert Read).

Two Heads is a significant work from this period, demonstrating the extent to which imaginative figuration has come to be important for Tunnard by the middle of the 1950s. He himself stated : ' The objects you see in my paintings and which you say do not exist do in fact exist, but in a world of my own. This world of my own is just as natural to me as your world is to you, and possibly at some future date you will encounter these shapes in your everyday experiences. I am often surprised myself when I meet a shape that I have used and have never before experienced in any form.'

In 1955, Tunnard was inspired by an American documentary film about life under the ocean which he saw in the local cinema and this inspired him to explore the world of underwater plants and creatures in works of this period (ref Sea Flower 1955). In Two Heads, the three, large, translucent seaweeds in the foreground create two-dimensions, connecting and leading the viewer into the topographical, seascape beyond. This is an organic, surreal device as the seaweeds, normally associated with the seabed, are dislocated from their Habitat and brought to the fore-front of the composition in contrast to the topographical seascape in the background. Whilst suggestive of musical instruments, the strings also create 2-dimensions equivalent to those in the constructivist sculptures of Gabo Hepworth and Moore in the late 1930's-early 1940's. Tunnard ingeniously heightens the sense of depth in Two Heads by angling the positioning of the boats and the 'ice' head to create 3-dimensions. Two Heads also has clear geometrical organisation, the 3 seaweeds interpose, the 2 heads and there are 4 boats in the background and one in the front left.

Tunnard explored the human form in the early-1930s and his studies appear to investigate anatomy and the mysterious relationship between man and woman, (ref: Man, woman & flag 1942, Man Woman & Iron 1942 ).

The head motif occurs in a handful of works in the 1950s, and culminates in more representative self-portrait of 1959, now in the National Portrait Gallery. Untitled (head with bird) P&W no 650 depicts a slightly devilish looking 'red; head was reputedly painted after the Tunnards had a party ! As Tunnard does not depict the human form after 1959, Two Heads is one of the last works where he used the human face as a device, and probably the one where he used it most prominently.

Tunnard never wrote detailed notes about his pictures so the viewer must make his own interpretations. The heads are arresting, powerful images and central to this work. It is interesting that they are female and they may represent the light and dark qualities of a particular woman, female/male architypes or emotions, (I am currently looking into this). The 'red' colouring of the head gazing at the viewer injects warmth and suggests passion. She is drawn with soft and rounded contours, and epitomises compassion and femininity. In contrast the other head is looking away from the viewer and has subtle white and blue colouring that is seen in ice. She is drawn with very sharp, pinched features and appears in opposition to the other head in every respect.

SUMMARY Two Heads is a unique picture in Tunnard's oeuvre bringing together Tunnard's interest in the natural world within a more legible composition as a landscape than most of his earlier works. It is a powerful work with many juxtapositions. Tunnard's use of the somewhat naive ship motifs and the very prominent, if rare in Tunnard's imagery, depiction of two heads suggests a renewed interest in surrealism although Tunnard is known to have disliked this label. It reflects many threads of the artist's past and passions and is a significant work of this period bursting with complexities but also with a playful lightness on the surface. It has everything that one expects from Tunnard at his best. As summed up the end of Peat & Whitton, ' His work in not for the hasty eye, but like great poems his best paintings repay many re-readings and with each one his talent becomes more strikingly clear. ' The 1950s ended on a high note with Tunnard's first one man exhibition for many years at the newly opened McRoberts & Tunnard Gallery in Curzon Street in November 1959. Two Heads was exhibited No 19, and illustrated in the catalogue.

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Height 25 cm / 10"
Width 35 cm / 14"
Depth 2 cm / 1"

20th Century





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