John Tunnard was born in Bedfordshire. He studied design at the Royal College of Art from 1919 to 1923. For the following four years he worked as a textile designer in Manchester before taking up painting seriously in 1928, whilst teaching design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. In 1931 he showed for the first time at The Royal Academy and, in the same year, exhibited with the London Group, of which had become a member in 1934. He moved to Cornwall with his wife in 1933 and had his first solo exhibition in the same year at the Redfern Gallery in London. Most of the works depicted the landscape of Cornwall.
Although he never formally joined the surrealist movement, by the mid-1930s, influenced by Joan Miró and Paul Klee, Tunnard began to paint abstract works and participated in several surrealist exhibitions including Surrealism, held at Gordon Fraser Gallery in 1939. In the same year Peggy Guggenheim gave him a show at her gallery, Guggenheim Jeune in London. From 1940 onwards he exhibited in group shows in London, at the Redfern Gallery, the Zwemmer Gallery and Alex Reid and Lefevre. He was given a solo exhibition in 1944 at Nierendorf Gallery in New York and, in 1946; he resumed teaching design, at Wellington College in Berkshire, followed by Penzance School of Art in Cornwall two years later. He featured in Contemporary British Art which toured the US in 1946, his work was shown at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris in 1949 and he designed a mural for the Festival of Britain in 1951. In 1967 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy and in 1971, the year of his death; he was featured in The British Contribution to Surrealism at Hamet Gallery in London. Much of the imagery depicted in Tunnard’s work derives from his interest in natural history, the seashore where he lived, animal and plant life and entomology although the themes of music, science and space travel are also evident.