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.