WW1 gatecrashed his early neo-Romantic inclined landscapes, but then ironically (helped by “Vorticist” colleagues like Nevinson) “Modernised”, made his art.
Thus the two world wars coaxed a number of masterpieces, at each end of his career.
His imagination and poetic sensibility meditated on Man and a land imbued with deep history.
(11 May 1889 – 11 July 1946, 57)
FEATURED IMAGE: 1923, The bay, woodcut, 120 x 178 mm
1919 The sea wall, watercolour and pencil 28 x 39cm. COMMENT: both from Dymchurch, Kent.
Polemic: yes he was a great British artist.
Would we remember Paul Nash but for WW1? Yes, but nowhere like we do now, for his striking war images, compelling and evocative.
As a young painter before WW1, with a poetic ear and inclined to neo-Romanticism, Nash was slower than some of his famous contemporaries in responding to then rampaging Modernism.
But WW1 upended his art – as it famously did for other painters, and writers, like Wilfred Owen’s poetry- so one of his best images, pioneering and powerful, was without doubt the confronting large The Menin Road (1918-19), Cubo-Futurist-Vorticist hued. Alongside it the mordantly ironic We are making a new world (1918) immediately became a brutally frank calling card for the reality of the conflict.
WW2, near the other end of his life, provoked two more masterpieces, particularly the arresting Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41), stark and singular, Surrealist-touched but also clearly pre-figured by his quasi-abstract Winter Sea (1925-37). Secondly came the also powerful but quite different quasi-abstract Battle of Germany (1944).
Nash’s powerful artistic response to the unimaginable destruction of two world wars was self-evidently occasioned by his exposure to both wars (WW1 first hand, especially late 1917), but was richly fertilized by, first, a sensitivity to mortality (as Simon Grant (Tate, 2003) highlights), to death, stemming from a life of ill health, beginning early, and also from coping with his mother’s prolonged mental unrest and early death (at 49) in Feb. 1910, and by, second, a poetic sensibility and a imaginative quasi-spiritual mindset, evident early and staying with him. William Blake and other Romantics were an early source, reinforced later around 1930 by meeting sympathetic American writer Conrad Aiken at Rye, and from 1943 by James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.
Nash is lambasted by some critics (cf Adrian Searle and Waldemar Januszczak in 2003) for his alleged clumsy embrace of Surrealism in the 1930s. Leave it to the pros? But this is misleading, attention seeking? As Andrew Causey writes (2003) we see Surrealist clues right through his art, starting with some of his early drawings, well before Surrealism was codified after WW1, then hints in his WW1 war art. Certainly some images appear pedestrian or forced (eg Landscape from a Dream (1936–8)) but many other responses are clearly legitimate, constructive, like Voyages of the Moon (1934-37) and Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935). Then his later justly acclaimed Totes Meer, and Flight of the magnolia both have Surrealist components.
And here’s an interesting (coincident?) connection. As Mr Januszczak notes (2003), Nash “had a thing about trees”. And Nash’s early drawings based on three elms at his then home at Iver talk directly to some “tree” works by a similarly thoughtful older Swiss-French artist, Felix Valloton (1865-1925), like to his willowy trees in Last sun rays (1911).
Nash was a famous British painter, especially of landscapes, whose life neatly overlapped both world wars (eg aged 25 in 1914), both of which he recorded as an official war artist. He was also a photographer, writer and designer of applied art.
Events – the calamitous wars – fashioned in Nash a curious and unlikely juxtaposition, induced a searing Realism alongside an imaginative, quasi-spiritual and pastoral neo-Romanticism which was his natural inclination.
His exact contemporary, and fellow Slade student, CRW Nevinson (1889‑1946), also joined and depicted WW1, but he was quicker to embrace Modernism before the war and his striking Cubist inspired “Futurist / Vorticist” war paintings from 1915-16 (hung Sep. 1916 in a one-man show in London) influenced Nash. Also “Nash would later [1949 autobiographical writings] call the 1st and 2nd exhibitions of The London Group [ie March 1914 and March 1915] the ‘Vindication of Vorticism’” (David Haycock et al, “A Crisis of Brilliance” (2013)).
From a conservative middle class background Nash was slow to react to Modernism before WW1. He trained at the well known Slade school before WW1, alongside a clutch of would be talented artists, but only briefly (1910-11), and his natural appetite was for neo-Romanticism, fond of William Blake, the Romantic poets (eg Coleridge), and particularly DG Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites.
Eschewing figurative painting, he quickly became above all a landscape painter, stimulated initially by trees and gardens at Iver Heath, Bucks. (just west of London, where he moved as a 12 year old), also by the Thames Valley Wittenham Clumps, a pair of hills, one an old Iron Age fort. His early art was perhaps also an escape from an uneasy childhood, from his mother’s mental unrest.
A major preoccupation for his landscapes became ancient history’s impact on the English countryside, the “sanctity” of Place. He felt “these sites had a talismanic quality”, thus he “saw himself in the tradition of English mystical painters W Blake and [the Romantic “mystical” painter] Samuel Palmer” (Tate). Thus he collected “Places”, of which perhaps Wittenham Clumps (“They were the Pyramids of my small world”) stands out, depicted from 1912 to 1944.
Though people obviously inhabited, imprinted this countryside across the centuries he used people sparingly in his landscapes. But this comparative absence of people (eg the solitary couple in The sea wall (1919) or the tiny figures in his WW1 paintings) became a powerful visual device (cf Waldemar Januszczak, 2003). Rather, trees, starting with the elms at Iver, became a favorite metaphor for people, like blasted trees for the carnage in France.
Some of Nash’s early drawings, before WW1, mark him out as gifted and evocative, particularly The cliff to the north (1912).
Seven oil paintings stemmed from WW1: The Menin Road (c June 1918 – Feb. 1919,), The Mule Track (1918), Spring in the Trenches (1918), Ridge Wood, 1917 (by July 1918), We Are Making a New World (1918, based on 1918 drawing, Sunrise (Inverness Copse), The Ypres Salient at Night (1918), Void (1918) and A Night Bombardment (1919-20),
From Dymchurch on the Kentish coast (late 1921 to mid 1924) we see spare, tense Cubist leaning works by an artist shaken by the calamity, showing individual Man engaging elemental forces beyond his ken or control, powerful works like the drawing The sea wall (1919), like the woodcut, The bay (1923), and especially his oil painting Winter Sea (1925-37), a striking Cubist inspired work, dark and deathly. We also see his Cezannesque Chestnut Waters (1923,27).
The 1928 show in London of work by the important Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, and a 1930 visit to Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery in Paris, broadened his appreciation of Modernism, later acknowledged in his writings as an art critic. They helped trigger a shift, beyond the Cubist paddock towards more overt abstraction and Surrealism.
A number of more consciously Surrealist images followed, like Landscape at Iden (1929), and some quasi-abstract, like Landscape of the Megaliths (1934), but still addressing familiar themes.
His iconic Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41) recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s Artic shipwreck (1824) but also clearly draws on a number of Nash’s earlier Cubist quasi-abstract coastal reflections at Dymchurch from 1921, especially Winter Sea (1925-37).
Nash ended his not long life on a high. Beyond his war paintings he produced a series of quasi-abstract “visionary” landscapes based (again) on the Wittenham Clumps, which became a final meditation on a life theme of the cycle of life intersecting the history-imbued English landscape. Then the enigmatic Flight of the Magnolia (1944), on a theme the artist called ‘aerial flowers’, and overshadowed by terminally failing health, was one of his best “Surrealist’ works.
Life and background.
Son of a barrister, born in Kensington, London, Nash later grew up (from 12) at Wood Lane, Iver Heath, Bucks., just west of London. He was afflicted early by asthma, which remained a chronic problem.
He started training in art Dec. 1906 (age 17) at the Chelsea Polytechnic, transferring late 1908 to the London City Counccil school at Bolt Court, off Fleet St. He then trained at the well known Slade School of Art from autumn 1910 to December 1911, alongside Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, David Bomberg, C.R.W. Nevinson, William Roberts, Edward Wadsworth and Dora Carrington, but he did not shine at figure drawing and left to concentrate on landscape painting.
Prominent portrait painter (later Sir) William Rothenstein (1872-1943) was an early (from 1909) and sustained supporter.
In a busy 1914 he joined Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops early in the year, was shown in two important exhibitions, courted and married Margaret Odeh, and joined the London Group 1914.
Then WW1 changed his life and his art. He enlisted Sep. 1914 in the Artists Rifles, married Oxford educated suffragette Margaret on 14 December 1914, trained in 1916 and Dec. 1916 transferred to the Hampshire Regiment. He arrived at the Ypres Salient on the Western Front early March 1917, where on 25th May he was injured, then invalided home.
Based on work shown September mid 1917 in London fellow artist CRW Nevinson (1889‑1946) encouraged him to apply to become an official war artist, which he did, supported by various artists (including Fry, Rothenstein) returning to the Ypres Salient in Nov.1917, finding it (immediately after Battle of Passchendale) devastated compared to spring that year. There he worked hard on drawings for over 6 weeks, then back in London early 1918 (commissioned April by the Ministry of Information) turned his copious work into a series of oil paintings, starting with The Menin Road. Works were shown May 1918 in a one man display (Void of War) at Leicester Galleries, to immediate acclaim.
After the war in autumn 1921 he had a war-induced breakdown and with his wife settled at the Kentish coastal village of Dymchurch, where the sea wall protecting Romney Marsh from flooding became an important reference, a metaphor for Man’s struggle against the elements, natural and man-made. But he kept working, recovered, earned enough to fund a long trip, mid 1924 to early 1925, to Nice, Florence and Pisa, after which they moved to Iden, near Rye in Sussex.
In 1933 he joined a number of prominent art figures in founding the short lived Unit One. “In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with fellow artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and the critic Herbert Read [also Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth]. It was a short-lived but important move towards the revitalisation of English art in the inter-war period.” (Tate).
The group fell out after one show (1934) owing to differences between Abstractionists and Surrealists.
Exposure to modern art from across the Channel was important, like a late 1928 show in London (his first) of the work of Giorgio de Chirico, then visiting Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery in Paris 1930.
Mid 1933 Nash saw a show of Max Ernst’s work in London at the Mayor Gallery, noticed Ernst’s interest in “primeval ruined cities” and his series on forests, “seat of irrational an instinctive forces” (Causey). In 1936 he was on the committee for the influential International Surrealist Exhibition held in June in London.
A July 1933 holiday visit to Silbury Hill and Avebury importantly reinforced his interest in landscape and history, seeded a number of paintings.
After a long trip to France (including Nice January/February 1934), Gibraltar and N Africa he and his wife moved June 1934 to coastal Swanage in Dorset, there inspired by local landmarks like Iron Age Maiden Castle, the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Fossil Forest at Lulworth. At Swanage too he began an intense affair with artist Eileen Agar. Mid 1936 he and his wife moved back to London, to Hampstead.
At the start of WW2 he was appointed as a full time war artist by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), “attached to the RAF”. But some were offended by his Modernism and failure to stick to portraits of pilots and his full time role ceased Dec. 1940. But WAAC Chairman Kenneth Clark championed his cause, secured Jan. 1931 a Stg500 commission to execute works on “the theme of aerial conflict”. The first two paintings, from 1941, were Totes Meer (Dead Sea) and Battle of Britain. His asthma related ill health interrupted work. Eventually he added The Defence of Albion and, in particular, The Battle of Germany, completed Sep.1944.
From 1942 Nash visited artist friend Hilda Harrisson at Boar’s Hill, Sandilands near Oxford, coincidentally affording views again of Wittenham Clumps. “He now painted a series of imaginative works of the Clumps under different aspects of the moon..”
Nash was “also a fine book illustrator, and also designed stage scenery, fabrics and posters.” There too grew sunflowers, which became an important motif in his final years.
TOPIC: some art shows London, pre WW1
November 1910 Manet and the Post-impressionists, Grafton Galleries, including Cezanne. By Roger Fry.
November 1911 Stafford Gallery showed work by Gauguin and Cezanne
March 1912 Exhibition of Works by the Italian Futurists, Sackville Gallery
November 1912 Paul Nash (first) one man show, Carfax Gallery
October 1912 Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, Grafton Galleries.
May 1913 Showed at New English Art Club.
October 1913 Post-Impressionist and Futurist Exhibition, Dore Gakkeries, org by Frank Rutter. Included Cezanne, van Gogh, Matisse, Severini, Picasso, and British artists.
November 1913 Nash brothers show, Dorien Leigh Gallry.
December 1913 Camden Town Group and Others, 6 works, Brighton Public Art Galleries.
March 1914 First London Group exhibition, Goupil Gallery, Regent St
May / June 1914 Twentieth Century Art: a Review of Modern Movements, Whitechapel Gallery, included Nash.
June 1914 David Bomberg’s first one-man show, Chenil Gallery, Chelsea
Feb. 1915 Paul and John Nash show, with the Friday Club.
March 1915 2nd (second) London Group show
June 1915 First (and only) Vorticist Exhibition, at Doré Gallery.
Nov. 1915 3rd London Group Exhibition
March 1916 Allid Artists’ exhibition, Grafton Galleries.
June 1916 4th London Group Exhibition
September 1916 Nevinson show, Leicester Galleries.
Nov. 1916 5th London Group Exhibition
June 1917 Nash drawings, Goupil Gallery.
Septmber 1917 Nash works shown in Birmingham.
March 1918 Nevinson show, Leicester Galleries.
May 1918 One-man Nash show, Void of War, Leicester Galleries.
WORKS: some peaks …………….
1912 The cliff to the north, pen, indian ink & grey wash on paper, 38 x 31cm, Fitzwilliam Museum. COMMENT: from the Norfolk coast, at Mundesley, near Cromer
1913, The three in the night, watercolour, ink and chalk, 20.75 x 13.5in, private. COMMENT: again the moon.
Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), 1911 Last sun rays, oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm
The cherry orchard, 1917, watercolour, ink and graphite pencil on paper, support: 575 x 482 mm. COMMENT: a stark tense evocative image, depopulated, as though everyone’s gone to the war. The skeletal trees are parading soldiers? There is debate when this was executed, 1914 or 1917, but surely the image speaks of 1917, the stylized geometry an especially the fence, the barbed wire fence trapping two (Dead?) birds.
Tate entry :““The Cherry Orchard” was made at John Drinkwater’s home, Winston’s Cottage, Far Oakridge, Gloucestershire, where Nash went in July 1917…. Nash had recovered from his injury at the front in May, but did not yet know that his return would be in the role of an official artist. This might help to account for the extraordinary tense imagery of the picture which seems more a later winter than a summer design…”
C June 1918 – Feb. 1919, The Menin Road, oil on canvas, 182.8 cm × 317.5 cm (72 in × 125 in), IWM. COMMENT: One of five oil paintings first shown May 1918 at the Void of War exhibition at Leicester Galleries, his first oil paintings. Overall this seems Nash’s most powerful WW1 images. Notice the foreground plants, clinging on. The blasted trees ringing for blasted lives. The surviving diminuitive soldiers tramp their new nether world. The spectral light from left throws shadows.
1918, The Ypres Salient at Night, oil on panel, 71.4 x 92.0 cm, Imperial War Museum, London
1918 (by July), Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917, IWM, London
COMMENT: more punches connect. Notice the wry darkly comic title. Two trees intact? And birds call top right rear. The mule track from early 1918 was his first oil painting.
1925-37, Winter Sea, oil, 73.6 × 99.0cm, York City Art Gallery.
1929, Landscape at Iden, Oil paint on canvas, 698 x 908 mm, Tate;
“This mysterious picture shows the view from Nash’s studio in Sussex. The dramatic perspective and strange juxtaposition of rustic objects creates a sense of the uncanny. It has been read as a statement of mourning. While the young fruit trees may suggest the defencelessness of youth, the altar-like pile of logs may be a symbol of fallen humanity; the fallen tree as a symbol for the dead was common in the art and literature of the war, not least in Nash’s own paintings.For many, an idea of the timeless and enduring English landscape seemed to displace the violent destruction of the war.” (Tate). It reflects the influence of the 1928 London exhibition by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.
1932, Rye Marshes East Sussex, oil, 58.8 x 100.3 cm, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull
1935, Equivalents for the Megaliths, oil on canvas, 457 x 660 mm, Tate.
Paul Nash was recuperating from a nasty bout of bronchitis in the summer of 1933 when he first came across the Avebury megaliths, the largest prehistoric stone circle in Europe. He recalled, ‘Some were half covered by the grass, others stood up in cornfields were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were wonderful and disquieting, and, as I saw them then, I shall always remember them
1940–1, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), oil paint on canvas, 101.6 x 152.4 cm, Tate
1944 (completed Sep.), Battle of Germany, Imperial War Museum, London, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 182.8 cm
1942, ‘Sunflower and sun’, oil on canvas, 51.1 x 76.5 cm, AG NSW. COMMENT “one of a series of works inspired by the view from Sandlands on Boars Hill near Oxford overlooking the Bagley Woods and taking in the Wittenham Clumps.”
1944, Flight of the Magnolia, Oil paint on canvas 511 x 762 x 22 mm, Tate. COMMENT: “part of a group of late works by Paul Nash that feature what the artist called ‘aerial flowers’” (Tate). The meaning of this image is much debated but despite Nash saying something himself its meaning remains ambiguous, probably to its credit.
1944, Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase, 63.5 x 76.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery
1945, Eclipse of the Sunflower, Oil on canvas, 71.1 X 91.4 cm, British Council. COMMENT: one of Paul Nash’s final two oil paintings.