This moving extract from ‘John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace’ details the enduring and unconventional love shared by painter John Nash and Christine Kühlenthal. The fifty-eight-year relationship, which permitted ‘outside loves’, withstood time, distance and the horrors of war.
On the last but one day of May 1918, at Gerrards Cross to the west of London, John Nash and Christine Kühlenthal married. It was a fine spring day, but the war news from France was bad. In keeping with the times, their vows were ‘quietly solemnised’. The bride was given away by her father, and Second Lieutenant Paul Nash attended his recently returned younger brother as best man. As the local paper noted, the groom had by this time served fourteen months in the ranks, but was now to be employed on work for the British War Memorials Committee.
Christine and Jack, as he was known to family and close friends, had become lovers eighteen months before – pledging publicly that they would marry if he came back alive and, privately, that their shared life would be at once both intimate and free. In their ideal future, each might well have other ‘outside loves’ and their alliance was to be a convention-defying undertaking. It was a choice the ‘Home & Colonials’, their parents and relations, might never understand or even know of – a deep personal commitment, but not an acceptance of ties that bind.
‘I know dear you will be good to me in the way you mean, I will try to be good to you,’ Christine wrote, ‘We will never let the sun go down upon our wrath. I really (consistently) mean that darling and I don’t think I shall forget it all my life. Oh, I hope we get the chance to put our ideals into practice.’
For fourteen months she had feared for him daily. Life seemed fragile and infinitely precious, the prospect of sharing it elusive – ‘never has the future seemed so impenetrable,’ Christine confessed, ‘I also do not know what to say but one thing is certain, that I ever love you more with the increasing difficulties that surround us’.
In frequent letters she had tried to hold him close: ‘I take you down to the gate and you light up your old bike – first the front lantern and then the one on the wheel. Then you kiss me over the gate and so I kiss you now.’ As she conveyed news of their families and her close friend Norah, of her dancing and teaching, and her efforts to exhibit and sell his dwindling stock of old work, she painted lyrical word-pictures of their favourite places, reminding him of the duets they had played, and of shared feelings and moments: ‘do you remember the thunderstorm when we were in the chestnut circle?’; ‘Do you remember you asked me if I knew that feeling, the first day, after the trolley day, sitting on our green sofa? I loved you for saying that – excited to think you knew it too.’
In return, his letters to ‘my dove’ brought descriptions of sights witnessed, incidents endured, landscapes caught out of the corner of his eye, and above all expressions of love: ‘My sweetest love bless you. I wish I could be running my fingers through your hair as Norah is fond of doing.’ With piercing directness they also chronicled the hardships he faced as a private and corporal, the suppressed fears, the fatigue, false hopes, depression and approach of danger. ‘I may be in unhealthier situations soon’ he wrote, anticipating the censor’s eye.
On Christmas Day 1917, he had written from an earthen bolt hole on the front line, pencil held in numbed fingers, to the Ministry of Information: ‘Dear Sir You recently granted my brother Lt Paul Nash the temporary post of Official War Artist on the Western Front. I respectfully beg to apply for the same post since I hear that many young artists my contemporaries are to be sent in the future. Perhaps my rank is against me being a non-commissioned officer. I have been in my Regt the 1st Artists Rifles in France since November [last] year & up the line since last June in various sectors of activity so that I have had many opportunities of observation but no convenience or authority to work … I beg you will consider my case and in the event of a refusal let me know soon.’
He had received no reply by the time, on a bitter morning five days later, he was ordered over the top near Marcoing, not far from Cambrai. During the thirty minutes of dirty light and yellow gas that followed, nearly all his immediate comrades died, cut down on the snow by machine gun fire. Withdrawn from the line with the remnants of his contingent and granted a fortnight’s leave – something he had yearned for constantly and been denied – he arrived home at Iver Heath on the second weekend of the New Year.
Reunited with Christine, he wrote to their mutual friend Dora Carrington: ‘Just back on leave at last and Christine and I are determined to get hold of you … I long to talk of many things. Will you say a day? It must be one between Sunday and Friday of next week. We are both here now playing away like mad. It is wonderful to be back if even for a short time. Write soon … ever yours Jack and Christine.
Reflecting years later on the despair of the times, the artist Christopher Nevinson recalled: ‘I shall never forget seeing poor John Nash – still in the ranks – one day at the Sitwells. He was just back from the front line; and, almost unaware of where he was, he yet mechanically behaved as though he were accustomed to dine with intellectuals night after night.’
For John and Christine the day of their wedding, one they had barely dared to imagine, gave legal form to a relationship that would endure for fifty-eight years until Christine’s death in late 1976. Fate did indeed grant them the opportunity to live out their permissive ideals, but their long journey, their joint and several search for intimacy and solace, would be one with many passages; shared joys were to be mixed with emotional schisms and periods of pain, distance and sadness. It was a union anchored in a love of music, particular places and common artistic affinities, which survived into old age despite tragedy and a seeming surfeit of complexities. For John Nash the support of the endlessly forbearing Christine Kühlenthal would make possible a career of great richness spanning six decades.
Extracted from John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace.
Accompanies a major exhibition on the artist at Towner Eastbourne, winner of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020, opening May 2021. Book your tickets here.