Portuguese Man O'War signed, numbered and dated 'John Tunnard 45/D.170' (lower right) watercolour, gouache and ink 26 x 36 cm. (10 1/4 x 14 1/8 in.)
PROVENANCE: With St. George's Gallery, London, where purchased by the family of the present owner, 29 January 1948
EXHIBITED: London, The Lefevre Gallery, John Tunnard, New Paintings, November - December 1947, no.44 Bath, Cleeve Hill, Bath Festival Exhibition, Loan Exhibition of Paintings from Private Collections, 8-16 June 1963, no.3 Bristol, Bristol City Art Gallery, 1987-1991
LITERATURE: Alan Peat & Brian A. Whitton, John Tunnard, His Life and Work, Scolar Press, Aldershot, 1997, cat.no.446, p.173
In 1933, the Tunnards moved to Cadgwith, a fishing village on the Lizard, Cornwall. John became a conscientious objector and spent the years of World War II briefly as a fisherman; but wholly as an auxiliary Coast Guard. Fellow artist and friend Julian Trevelyan wrote of him in the contemporary London Bulletin that he "is the man who is always talking about shipwrecks and pirates. They say he lives in Cornwall where he undermines the morals of the older fishermen; he turns them into jitterbugs" (see Alan Peat & Brian A Whitton, p.58).
Tunnard spent long hours and days at a vantage point perched high on the cliff-top, searching for any signs of invasion. In Trevelyan's later autobiography, he recalls with fondness that "after a lot of drinks in the pub and a session at his cottage during which he put on his pink plastic bowler hat and danced to the records of Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, he finally stumbled off round the cliffs to his look-out..." (Op.Cit., p.63).
In 1940, Tunnard had an article published in Picture Post describing his experience called 'The Life of a Coast Guard'. In this, he explained the marked contrast of hours spent looking out to sea considering the natural world, whilst surrounded by posters of British and enemy aircrafts, charts of flags and manuals on salvage. These extraordinary opposites contribute directly to the present work.
Here we see a superb example of Tunnards 'submarine' work. The perspective of this underwater panorama allows the viewer access to a marine cross-section in the artist's imagination. We can perceive the upper third as what he might actually have seen from his look-out and the lower three quarters as what he created in his minds eye. From the surface we just see the tip of an anchor-like structure barely penetrating the waves and the harmless part of a man of war bobbing innocently next to it. But below, the extent of the structure and tentacles are revealed through swirls of colour and pattern.
Taking inspiration from the world around him, this work can be interpreted as a commentary by the artist on war, in a sense of 'what you see may not be what you get'. Portuguese Man O' War is a symphony of draughtsmanship and symbolism, executed in an ostensibly difficult time and offered at auction here for the first time.