John Tunnard: Nature, Politics and Science


The DLI Musem and Art Gallery in Durham, August 2015

I’ve written about my interests in the borderlands between science and art several times before (see ““Imagined” but not “imaginary”” amongst other posts) so an exhibition entitled “John Tunnard: Nature, Politics and Science” at our local art gallery is not something that I can ignore.   The exhibition, at the DLI Gallery, is an overview of the career of John Tunnard, a modernist painter active during the middle of the 20th century, and the relevance to a blog that focuses on algae is that the exhibition was curated by, and contains many  paintings owned by, my PhD supervisor, Brian Whitton.


John Tunnard: Nature, Politics and Science at the DLI Museum and Art Gallery, August 2015

Tunnard worked in a variety of styles, but the picture below is a good summary of his work, which often hovers on the borderlands between realism and abstraction.   There are identifiable elements within the painting (the sea on the right hand side, a moon suspended in a night sky towards the centre?) but also abstract shapes that veer towards surrealism (though, apparently, Tunnard himself did not formally associate himself with this movement).   Other pictures include references to the natural world, particularly around his home in Cornwall but, again, he pushes our expectations of what this natural world looks like, teasing us with alternative, more abstract, realities. In Cliff Tops, amongst near-recognisable flowers, we see a rock formation that bears an uncanny resemblance to the head of a whale.   Does this borderland between realism, imagination and abstraction exist in the head of the artist or the viewer, or does it depend on a synergy between the two?   Or is it out there, all the time, just waiting for an open mind to approach it?


John Tunnard: Holiday, 1947, lithograph, 42 x 68 cm.

In his later paintings his interest in science branches out and space motifs, in particular, start to appear in his paintings. The parabolic bowl of a satellite earth station dominates some whilst one painting, from 1969, shows moon craters. This brings the issue of realism and the imagination into sharp focus: before the Apollo missions, we had ideas about the moon; from 1969, lunar landscapes had a reality against which the efforts of an artist could be verified.   As is often the case, abstraction and reality are not mutually exclusive; perception and experience play a part in determining the limits which, consequently, can vary from person to person, and from subject to subject.

The exhibition runs until 4 October 2015


Peat, A. & Whitton, B.A. (1997).   John Tunnard: His Life and Work. Scolar Press, Aldershot.

Whitton, B.A. (2015). John Tunnard: Nature, Politics and Science. Exhibition Catalogue, DLI Museum and Art Gallery, Durham.


Eclipsed … in Luxembourg City

You cannot fail to love a country whose Ministry of the Environment is to be found in Avenue du Rock’n’Roll. Nor can you fail to love a country where a mid-morning amble brings you upon a crowd of a hundred or so people staring through lens and visibly excited.   This blog is, after all, all about the wonders that you see when you stare through a lens.


Avenue du Rock’N’Roll, Esch–sur-Alzette, Luxembourg.

I’m in Luxembourg. I arrived yesterday for a meeting and today I had some time before my flight to explore the delights of Luxembourg City. The hundred or so people that I encountered were in the courtyard of the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle and they were looking at the solar eclipse.   It was telescopes, not microscopes, that were the source of the excitement. There is something embedded deep in our natures, I guess, that makes the enormous so much more fascinating than the tiny, even though the minuscule, un-noticed bugs that fill our planet have far greater – and mostly beneficial – effects on us than you could imagine if you subsist on a diet of television natural history programmes.


Left: eclipse spotters in Luxembourg City, 20 March 2015; right: the eclipse, observed through a pinhole camera.

Perhaps we should see Brian Cox and Dara O’Brien as the latest in a long line of sun priests that extend right back to the Ancient Egyptians, and probably long before.   The Egyptians did not need high-powered science to work out that the sun was the origin of all life on our planet. Science, perhaps, only adds to this sense of wonder.   Pause for a moment before you next marvel at astronomical wonders: were it not for the sun and that wonderful molecule chlorophyll, we would all be no more than a bottle of carbonated mineral water.

The biblical King David got it. He sat on dark hillsides and contemplated the night sky and Psalm 19 is his response to what he saw (“The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims the work of his hands …”). If this is what a man writes staring up at the cosmos with his naked eyes writes, what would he have written, had he had a telescope?   And what would he have written if he had been able to stare down a microscope, too? Forty percent of all primary production on earth, plus all of the decomposition and nutrient recycling that bacteria and fungi provide, not to mention the creation of the oxygen-rich atmosphere that enabled life on earth to flourish in so many extraordinary ways?   That, surely, deserves a psalm.

Two posts in a day? Sorry about that. It will not happen again for some time, I promise.