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Paul Nash (1889 − 1946)

Venice Biennale participation

Group show
1924 1926 1928 1930 1932 1938

Paul Nash's Aunt Gussie had watercolours by Edward Lear - who had once hoped to marry her - in her drawing room. This was part of a childhood 'peopled by [the] creatures' of German and English children's literature: as much Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm as Lewis Carroll's Alice books. As a second war with Germany loomed, the British Pavilion showed his own work for the third time after 1926 and 1932, this time with a timely array of landscapes, book illustrations and war paintings.

In Outline (1949), his autobiography, he recalls a distinct sense that he 'belonged to the country'. School, though, was London's St. Paul's, where he stayed until seventeen, having failed the entry exams to follow his mother's side of the family to Naval College. Not good enough at maths for 'getting on' into banking or architecture, he began to find his way at Chelsea College of Art and the London County Council's School of Photo-Engraving and Lithography (now part of London College of Communication), where he felt he 'was literally starting [his] schooling at nineteen.'

Worryingly for his father, 'instead of profiting by the commercial art training', he 'fell under the disintegrating charm' of English Victorian painters and poets such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and produced Pre-Raphaelite-influenced poetry and bookplates in imitation.

Nevertheless, he had a poster design praised by established painter William Rothenstein, and moved to the Slade in 1910 where he was a contemporary of Ben Nicholson, Stanley Spencer and Mark Gertler. Uninspired, he left after a year and began to paint and draw from nature, getting his first solo exhibition at London's Carfax Gallery in 1912.

Around this point, he met the Royal Academician Sir William Richmond, whose mosaic murals of Old Boys he had seen at the Great Hall in St. Paul's. He told Nash 'you should go in for landscape, my boy', and, due to his 'inadequate control of the letter R', repeatedly ended their meetings

Wemember my boy, drwawing, drwawing, drwawing, always, drwawing.

Richmond had been named for William Blake, and, under his mentorship, Nash felt increasingly linked to the visionary poet-engraver's peculiarly English sense of nature, and of mysticism. In Outline, he describes persuading himself he was 'seeing visions' after reading Blake's 'To Thomas Butts':

Over sea, over land,
My eyes did expand
Into regions of air,
Away from all care;
Into regions of fire,
Remote from desire;[…]

To the young Nash, this was 'an exhortation to open my eyes and look about me, above all, to look up, to search the skies […] I believed that by a process of what I can only describe as inward dilation of the eyes I could increase my actual vision.'

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Nash joined the Artists' Rifles in August, and married Margaret Odeh, an Oxford-educated suffragette, in December. By 1917 he had met the war poets Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas, and been invalided home after falling into a trench at Ypres.

He recovered quickly, and was sent back to Flanders as an official war artist to record the aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele, where mustard gas introduced chemical warfare to the world, and well over half a million men died for about eight kilometres of churned-up mud.

The critic Herbert Read felt he had failed in writing about his own wartime experience, but that 'here', in his friend Nash, 'was someone who could convey, as no other artist, the phantasmagoric atmosphere of No Man's Land. Other artists were to depict the psychological horrors of war – especially the poets and novelists – but the aspect which Paul Nash revealed was the outrage on Nature – the Nature which had been so delicate and sensuous to New English eyes.'

Nash painted his first public commission, The Menin Road (1919), for the Ministry of Information. Painting in Buckinghamshire, he wrote to his friend Gordon Bottomley

how difficult it is, folded as we are in the luxuriant green country, to put it aside and brood on those wastes in Flanders, the torments, the cruelty & terror of this war. Well it is on these I brood for it seems the only justification of what I do now – if I can rob the war of the last shred of glory, the last shine of glamour.

The landscape has had its road shelled off, and is structured only by decaying trees in perspective, with a couple of soldiers running through them like a memory of the holidaying court in Uccello's The Hunt in the Forest (c.1470).

Technically, Nash felt 'jolted' by his experiences, developing 'greater freedom of handling', and a 'greater sense of rhythm' from having to make 'rapid sketches in dangerous positions.'

His visionary sense of the world around him seems actually to have strengthened; Andrew Causey argues that Void (1918) is 'the nearest thing in Nash's work to a statement of hopelessness', but goes on to point out 'it represents the inert chaos of the void in the sense Blake understood.' As he continues, in We are Making a New World (1918) the sun rising over the battlefield – no longer recognisable as a field – seems to suggest 'that nature reasserting her authority can subsume violence'; 'nature itself has been violated', but it alone 'is the force that can atone for human bloodshed.'

In the 1920s, Nash found himself 'a war artist without a war.' Travelling, teaching and exhibiting, he worked increasingly as a book illustrator, having particular success with Thomas Browne's seventeenth-century Urne Buriall (1932), a sceptical discussion of terrestrial monuments to human life, in favour of being 'Ready to be any thing, in the extasie of being ever', content with 'six foot' of earth.

The possibility – or impossibility – of geography having a memory clearly struck a chord; Herbert Read called Nash's illustrations 'one of the loveliest achievements of contemporary English art', and the Browne-inspired Mansions of the Dead (1932), 'an attempt to carry the urge to abstraction into the realm of fantasy.'  By setting what look like shelves in a fluffy-clouded heaven, it is also expressive of an enduring imaginative fascination with the sky.

Nash wrote and illustrated The Dorset Shell Guide (1936), a commission from John Betjeman in which he described 'The Face of Dorset':

at once harsh and tender, alarming yet kind, seeming susceptible to moods, but, in secret, overcast by a noble melancholy – or, simply, the burden of its extraordinary inheritance.

This preoccupation with landscape ran alongside an interest in the abstract. In 1933, Nash wrote to the Times to declare that Unit One, the movement he had founded with Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, amongst others, 'may be said to stand for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit [in] painting, sculpture, [and] architecture'. According to Causey, 'though short-lived', the group 'shifted the balance of British art during the 1930s in favour of abstraction'.

The Venice show, with its revisiting of pieces such as We Are Making a New World, was followed by Nash's re-appointment as an official war artist in 1939.

In the face of the terrifying rhetorical success of 'that academic-artist-failure, Adolph Hitler', Nash declared 'this is, above all else, a war of the imagination.' As Charles Hall notes, he began to make 'propaganda against the Nazis and their values, not against war itself.' As menacing German aircraft lie wrecked in the countryside in Bomber in the Corn and Bomber in the Woods (both 1940) 'the forces of good are identified with the English landscape, the forces of evil with the enemy.'

In his fifties, ill, but still energised by Blake, Nash again re-imagined his surroundings on the Home Front in pieces like Battle of Britain (1941) and Follow the Führer above the Clouds (1942):

when the War came, suddenly the sky was upon us all like a huge hawk hovering, threatening. Everyone was searching the sky expecting some terror to fall; I among them scanned the low clouds or tried to penetrate the depth of the blue. I was hunting the sky for what I most dreaded in my own imagining. It was a white flower.

This 'flower' – which had meant a military parachute – re-emerged as a brilliant sunflower in his final works, notably in 1945's particularly Blakean Eclipse of the Sunflower, completed the year before his death.

Tom Overton, 2009

Sources

Andrew Causey, Paul Nash (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).

Charles Hall, Paul Nash: Aerial Creatures (London: Imperial War Museum, 1996).

Peter Hart & Nigel Steel, Passchendaele: The Sacrificial Ground (London: Cassell's, 2000).

Jemima Montagu, ed., Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape (London: Tate, 2003).

Paul Nash, Outline: An Autobiography, and other writings (London: Faber, 1949).

Paul Nash, Aerial Flowers (Oxford: Counterpoint Publications, 1947).

Myfanwy Piper, 'Nash, Paul (1889–1946),' rev. Andrew Causey, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004).

Herbert Read, Paul Nash (London: Penguin, 1944).

Herbert Read, Paul Nash: A Portfolio of Colour Plates (London: Soho Gallery, 1937).

Images

Paul Nash We Are Making a New World (1918) oil on canvas, 711 mm x 914 mm, IWM ART 1146

Paul Nash We Are Making a New World (1918) oil on canvas, 711 mm x 914 mm, IWM ART 1146
© IWM reproduction right

  • Paul Nash Battle of Britain (1941) oil on canvas, 1226 mm x 1835 mm,  IWM ART LD 1550
  • Paul Nash The Menin Road (1919) oil on canvas, 1828 mm x 3175 mm, IWM ART 2242
  • Paul Nash, The Sea (1923) oil on canvas, 55.8 x 88.9cm
  • Paul Nash, Bomber in the Corn (1940) Pencil and watercolour on paper 39.4 x 57.8 cm
  • Paul Nash in uniform c.1918
  • Paul Nash, Mansions of the Dead (1932) Pencil and watercolour on paper 82 x 61.1 x 2.2 cm
  • Paul Nash - An Earthly Music
  • Paul Nash Combat (Angel and Devil) (1910) pen and ink wash, 35.5 x 25.8 cm
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