"Anyone who lives in a city will know the feeling of having been there too long. The gorge-vision that streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac." Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places, 2007
Looking at Myles Tonks’s oil on board, Low Tide, a sense of calm washes over me – the ebb and flow of retreating sea and rushing clouds reassuring that time and tide wait for no man.
Myles Tonks RI RBA (1890-1960), nephew of better-known artist and (infamous) teacher Henry Tonks, is said to have enjoyed travelling alone to paint in remote areas where he could be at one with the countryside and as removed as possible from humanity.
In his enchanting book The Wild Places (2007) Robert Macfarlane ruminates on this very notion – the healing powers of nature’s beauty and, more specifically, nature where the evidence of human presence is minimal or absent.
To look at Myles Tonks’s landscape paintings is to be immersed in a vision of Britain without the shackles the man-made world.
A yearning for the wild is perhaps felt more keenly in Britain than abroad. Macfarlane notes that our densely populated land means that wildness has time and again been declared dead. E.M. Forster wrote in 1964:
“Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation, science lent her aid, and the wildness of these islands, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time. There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, and no deserted valley”.
Historically, the landscape genre in art has reinforced a sense of nature as subject to human intervention and cultivation. Long considered a lowly genre of art, below history, portrait and genre painting, it was not until the 17th century that landscape was even treated as a subject in its own right, rather than as background to or scenery for human activity.
Nevertheless, human figures were still, in the 18th and 19th centuries, an important component of landscape painting, existing to indicate scale and evoke the viewer’s empathy. English masters of the genre, such as John Constable, would maticulously include human figures to suggest the harmony of Nature and man.
John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 - National Gallery, London
It was the near-abstract paintings of J.M.W. Turner that would really revolutionise landscape painting and free the subject from the necessary trace of human activity. Myles Tonks’s sparsely painted Rainy Beach owes a gracious debt to Turner’s cloud paintings:
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Storm Clouds Sunset, 1825
Myles Tonks was born at Darley, Warwickshire in 1890 and he studied at Medway School of Art, as well as receiving training from his uncle, Henry Tonks, the influential Slade Professor of Fine Art. Henry Tonks’s other students included David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore, Augustus John, Gwen John, Percy Wyndham Lewis and Stanley Spencer.
Whilst the elder Tonks was ruthless in his teaching of life drawing and copying from the Antique, and he himself excelled in figure painting, Myles Tonks used this grounding in draughtsmanship to develop his love of landscape. He was especially attracted to the remote, uninhabited mountains and far-flung coasts of the British Isles – of the Scottish Highlands, Wales and the West Country.
Tonks's specific subjects, however, are often understated rather than inherently dramatic. Rather than evoking a feeling of the sublime they elicit something more tranquil. He captures a sense of what it is to be immersed in nature at close hand. An unremarkable corner of riverbank vegetation, or view across wooded fields, is transformed by the speedily applied paint by which he harnesses the energy of rushing water or entangled foliage.
Just as Robert Macfarlane finds solace in the wild, the nature viewed in Tonks’s art is a welcome balm for the soul. For all of us with metropolitan malaise, we need a dose of that.
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