Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955
Two Heads, 1955

JOHN TUNNARD (1900-1971)

Two Heads, 1955

1955 British

Offered by Lucy Johnson

£30,000 gbp
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Favourite Item
Executed in 1955
Signed and dated ' John Tunnard / 55 ' lower right
Titled, signed & dated verso

Watercolour and gouache

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, ill 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.,

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

The direct affect of this was from 1952-7 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 is the only recorded work by Tunnard showing ships at sea. In the 50’s 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 colour, 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.

Works such as Grey Mullet (1953) and Attack (1957) below, both illustrate a similar repetition of forms and balanced regularity of composition.

‘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-1930’s and his studies appear to investigate anatomy and the mysterious relationship between man and woman, (ref: Man, woman & flag 1942, Man Woman & Iron 1942 illustrated below).

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 ! Tunnard does not depict the human form after 1959.

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.

Two Heads is a powerful work with many juxtapositions. It reflects many threads of the artist’s past and passions and is an important 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 1950’s 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.

The exhibition was very successful, …’ Tunnards name is not as familiar as the merit of his work warrants for here is a very arresting talent indeed. I predict that the impact will be most gratifying to all concerned with this new venture. Certainly all the ingredients of a success d’esteem are present..In short this is an exhibition of major impact and importance ..” (David Nicholson, Arts News & Review’

• British Council (1949) Eleven British Artists. 1949. 12 pp.
• Corbett-Winder, Kate (2003) In Service. House & Garden, March, pp. 103-107.
• Freyberg,Annabel (2002) The World of Interiors, December 2002, pp. 116-121.
• Glazebrook, Mark (1983) 5 Modern British Artists. Privately printed by Mark Glazebrook, London. 30 pp.
• Martin, Simon (2010) John Tunnard. Inner Space to Outer Space. Exhibition, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.
• McRoberts and Tunnard Ltd (1959) John Tunnard (Introduction by Denys Sutton). McRoberts and Tunnard, Curzon Street, London. 15 pp.
• National Gallery of Victoria (2007) John Tunnard. Modern Britain 1900-1960. Masterworks from Australian and New Zealand Collections. National Gallery of Art, Melbourne. 308 pp., pp. 224-231. (With articles by Ted Gott, Jane Messenger and Mary Kisler)
• Niechcial, Judith (2002) A Particle of Clay. The Biography of Alec Skempton, Civil Engineer. Latheronwheeel, Caithness.
• Peat, Alan and Whitton, Brian A. (1997) John Tunnard. His Life and Work. Scolar Press,Aldershot, Surrey. 224 pp.
• Read, Herbert (1965) Rediscovery – The world of John Tunnard. In: J. Hadfield (ed.) The Saturday Book – 15. Hutchinson, London. 256 pp., pp. 152-165.
• Sutton, Denys (1961) A Propos Blondini. (Review of McRoberts & Tunnard exhibition, 29 November - 22 December 1961). Financial Times, 19.12.61.
• Tunnard, John (S) (1940) The life of a coast guard. Picture Post Vol. 9, No. 10 (December), pp. 9-13.
• Whitton, Brian A. (2011) John Tunnard. His Life and Art from the 1920s to the 1970s. Grey College, Durham University, 3 - 26 June 2011. Henry Dyson Fine Art. 44 pp.
• Whitton, Brian A. and Peat, Alan (2010) Chronology. In: John Tunnard. Inner Space to Outer Space. Exhibition, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 13 March - 6 June. 125 pp., pp.115-123.
• Whitton, Brian A. and Peat, Alan (2000) John Tunnard. A Retrospective. Grey College, University of Durham, 29 September - 22 October. Henry Dyson Fine Art. 19 pp.


• 1900 John Samuel Tunnard born 17 May in Sandy, Bedfordshire 1908 Attended Horton School, Ickwellbury, Bedfordshire until 1913
• 1914 Attended Charterhouse School until 1918
• 1919 Student of design at Royal College of Art until 1923
Drummer in the London Students Jazz Band
• 1923 Designer for Tootal, Broadhurst, Lee in Manchester
• 1926 Artistic adviser to carpet manufacturers H. & M. Southwell, Bridgnorth, Shropshire
Married Mary Robertson
• 1928 Employed by John Lewis & Co. Ltd., London as selector for woven and printed
• 1931 First exhibition with the London Group.
Exhibited at Royal Academy Summer Show for the first time
• 1933 Moved to Cadgwith, Cornwall and began to experiment with abstraction.
First major exhibition (Redfern Gallery).
Started a hand-blocked silk business with his wife
• 1934 Became a member of the London Group
• 1936 Involved in Surrealist exhibition (organized by Julian Trevelyan) in Cambridge
• 1937 Surrealist Section, Artists International Association, London
• 1938 Introduced to Peggy Guggenheim
• 1939 One-man show, Guggenheim Jeune Gallery
• 1940 Enrolled as an auxiliary in H.M. Coastguards at Cadgwith continuing to serve
throughout World War II
• 1946 Taught at Wellington College, Berks
• 1947 Moved to Carn Watch, Bosullow, near Morvah,West Cornwall
• 1948 Part-time teaching post at Penzance School of Art until 1965
• 1951 Moved to London for several months to prepare a mural for The Festival of Britain 1952 Moved to Laura Knight’s old house,Trethinick, at Lamorna, Cornwall
• 1967 Elected A.R.A.. Suffered a stroke
• 1971 Died 18 December

Paintings in Museums and Public Art Galleries Worldwide:

• Arts Council Collection (1)
• Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, (1)
• British Government Art Collection (3)
• British Council Collection (5)
• Ferens Art Galley, Hull (5)
• Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (2)
• Glasgow Museums (1)
• Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry (1)
• Imperial War Museum, London (2)
• Laing Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear (1)
• Leicester Arts & Museums Service (1)
• Leicester County Council Artworks Collection (1)
• Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum (1)
• National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh (1)
• National Portrait Gallery, London, UK (1)
• Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (1
• Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth (1)
• Southampton City Art Gallery (1)
• Tate Britain, London (7)
• Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (4)
• Wolverhampton Arts & Heritage (1)

• Museum of Modern Art, MOMA, New York (1)
• Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy (2)
• The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (1)
• Auckland Art Gallery (2)
• Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington (1)
John Tunnard, 26 November - 23 December 1959, no.19, McRoberts & Tunnard, London
John Tunnard, 6 - 30 April 1971, no.18, Hartnoll & Eyre Gallery, London
John Tunnard, His Life and Work, A. Peat and B.A. Whitton, pp.185-6, no.649, fig.48 (ill.b&w)
watercolour and gouache
Lucy Johnson

Lucy Johnson
Mailing address: Bartons Lodge
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