Last summer I walked in a field near Avebury where two rough monoliths stand up, sixteen feet high, miraculously patterned with black and orange lichen, remnants of the avenue of stones which led to the great circle. A mile away, a green pyramid casts a gigantic shadow. In the hedge, at hand, the white trumpet of a convolvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun. In my art I would solve such an equation.
(Paul Nash in Unit One – Herbert Read (ed.))
Seven encounters with Paul Nash from the recent Tate Britain show.
Paul Nash was born in London in 1889, but in 1902 the family moved to Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire in an attempt to improve the mental health of his mother. Nash became intrigued with a group of elm trees at the bottom of the house’s garden: ’They appeared to be hurrying along stooping and undulating like a queue of urgent females with fantastic hats’. This early encounter presaged Nash’s later belief that ‘my love of the monstrous and the magical led me beyond the confines of natural appearances into unreal worlds’.
In 1914 Nash enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles. By 1917, as a commissioned officer in the Hampshire Regiment, he was in the thick of it in the Ypres Salient. Invalided home for three months after an accident in the trenches he returned to the front as an official war artist. Nash hated the war. He wrote to his wife, ‘It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever’. Nash’s war paintings are among his most well-known, depicting the Flanders landscape as a killing field of churned mud, barbed wire, shell craters, dead trees, black rain and torn bodies. And yet amid this physical destruction and psychic disfigurement, his painting Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, with its budding trees and distant birds, hints at nature’s regeneration and a corresponding spiritual regeneration.
Nash’s pre-war landscape paintings showed the influence of William Blake and Samuel Palmer. During the 1920s he developed a new style, abandoning explicit symbolism and attempting to capture the deep, pre-human personality of the landscape itself. In his incomplete autobiography Outline he wrote, ‘there are places and objects and works of art, whose relationship of parts creates a mystery, an enchantment which cannot be analysed’. His painting Berkshire Downs manages to be both naturalistic and somehow mysterious at the same time. Nash’s search for meaning in the landscape was also a search for communion with it.
Walking on Romney Marsh one day in 1934, Nash found a large piece of driftwood which immediately attracted him and which he brought home. In an article for Country Life, the critic P. Morton Shand explained how ‘Nash was instantly and intensely aware of being in the presence of what he could only describe as a “personage” and Coleridge might have called a “personeity”. That splintered and eroded tree trunk was more and other than it seemed, and emanated some indeterminable and disquieting magic, Being shapeless, it yet occultly evinced form; though dead it was patently quick with a mysterious life of its own.’ Nash named the object Marsh Personage, photographing it, painting it, and displaying it at the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. It was less a kind of captive animal and more an artistic collaborator, which prompts the thought: did Nash find the object or did the object find Nash?
Nash was a leader of the British Surrealist movement in the mid-1930s. Using surrealist ideas to join tradition with modernism, he depicted Avebury’s ritual landscape not as an archaeological museum but as a living landscape where myth, history and imagination interacted, and where other objects, other landscapes (see the white cliffs in this painting) could manifest . In a piece for Country Life called ‘Unseen Landscapes’, he wrote, ‘The landscapes I have in mind are no part of the unseen world in a psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.’
Publication of the Shell Guides to English counties began in the 1930s, under the benign supervision of John Betjeman. The guides were aimed at the growing band of motorists spending their leisure time exploring a newly accessible England, an England they may barely have known. Betjeman wanted something different from the stolid Victorian County surveys and the cosier 20th century guidebooks. He commissioned several artists to produce the guides, granting them considerable latitude in the task. Nash got Dorset, and put the picturesque and the bucolic firmly to one side, giving instead a portrait of a county where prehistoric beasts, ‘scarred and furrowed’ landscapes, cruel seas and modern road networks cohabited the spacetime. The photomontages that Nash created for the guide were not intended to impose some artificial ‘strangeness’ on Dorset but to make the visitor aware of what was already there, unseen.
Nash crossed the Channel to encounter war the first time round. In 1940, he was once again commissioned as an official war artist, and this time the war had come to England. While the real destruction was going on in cities such as London and Coventry the English countryside was being littered with the wreckage of German fighter planes and bombers, malevolent found objects that Nash used in his paintings. Could this new war, wounding and disfiguring England rather than a foreign land, have affected him even more deeply than the first did? In the paintings of his final years Nash returned to a more overt symbolism of suns, moons and enchanted landscapes. He outlasted the war by less than a year and died in 1946 from the asthma that had plagued him all his life. Not long before, he wrote: ’Death, I believe, is the only solution to this problem of being able to fly. Personally, I feel that if death can give us that, death will be good’.