John Tunnard was born in Bedfordshire; he studied textile design at the Royal College of Art, London. For a time he worked as a designer for Tootal Broadhurst and later as a fabric buyer for John Lewis & Co Ltd in London. At the beginning of the 1930s he and his wife moved to Cornwall and established a hand-block printed silk business, and Tunnard began to devote himself increasingly to painting. Much of the imagery he used derives from the seashore where he lived and worked, though some seem to come from the idiom of jazz (Tunnard was a keen jazz player): his weird, impromptu shapes, cut with a metallic edge, often seem to be the visual metaphors for this modern, free-association music. He always maintained an interest in natural history, and his attention to animal and plant life is also apparent in much of his work. In addition he was a keen field botanist, and collected rare insects for the British Museum.