Paul Nash (artist)
Totes Meer (Dead Sea)
(between 1940 and 1941, Tate Gallery)
11 May 1889|
|Died||11 July 1946
Boscombe, Dorset, U.K.
|Education||Slade School of Art|
|Known for||Painting, Printmaking|
Paul Nash (11 May 1889 – 11 July 1946) was a British surrealist painter and war artist, as well as a photographer, writer and designer of applied art. Nash was among the most important landscape artists of the first half of the twentieth century. He played a key role in the development of Modernism in English art.
Born in London, Nash grew up in Buckinghamshire where he developed a love of the landscape. He entered the Slade School of Art but was poor at figure drawing and concentrated on landscape painting. Nash found much inspiration in landscapes with elements of ancient history, such as burial mounds, Iron Age hill forts such as Wittenham Clumps and the standing stones at Avebury in Wiltshire. The artworks he produced during World War One are among the most iconic images of the conflict. After the war Nash continued to focus on landscape painting, originally in a formalized, decorative style but, throughout the 1930s, in an increasingly abstract and surreal manner. In his paintings he often placed everyday objects into a landscape to give them a new identity and symbolism.
During World War Two, although sick with the asthmatic condition that would kill him, he produced two series of anthropomorphic depictions of aircraft, before producing a number of landscapes rich in symbolism with an intense mystical quality. These have perhaps become among the best known works from the period. Nash was also a fine book illustrator, and also designed stage scenery, fabrics and posters.
The son of a successful lawyer and a mentally unstable mother who died in a mental asylum in 1910, Nash was born in London and was educated at St Paul's School. Nash was originally intended for a career in the navy, following the path of his maternal grandfather, but despite additional training at a specialist school in Greenwich, he failed the Naval Entrance Examination and sought to take up art as a career. Studying for a year at the Chelsea Polytechnic, he then enrolled at the London County Council School of Photo-engraving and Lithography, in Bolt Court off Fleet Street, in the autumn of 1908. Nash spent two years studying at Bolt Court, where he began to write poetry and plays and where his work was spotted and praised by Selwyn Image. He was advised by his friend, the poet Gordon Bottomley, and by the artist William Rothenstein, that he should attend the Slade School of Art at University College, London. He enrolled in October 1910, though he later recorded that on his first meeting with the Professor of Drawing, Henry Tonks, 'It was evident he considered that neither the Slade, nor I, were likely to derive much benefit'.
The Slade was then opening its doors to a remarkable crop of young talents – what Tonks later described as the school's second and last 'Crisis of Brilliance'. Nash's fellow students included Ben Nicholson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, Dora Carrington, Christopher R. W. Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Nash struggled with figure drawing, and spent only a year at the school. Nash had shows in 1912 and 1913, sometimes with his brother John, largely devoted to drawings and watercolours of brooding landscapes, influenced by the poetry of William Blake and the paintings of Samuel Palmer and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Two locations in particular featured in his landscape work at this time, the view from his father's house in Iver Heath and a pair of tree-topped hills in the Thames Valley known as the Wittenham Clumps. These were the first in a series of locations, which would eventually include Ypres, Dymchurch, the Romney Marshes, Avebury and Swanage, that would inspire Nash in his landscape paintings throughout his life. By the summer of 1914 Nash was enjoying some success and during that year he worked briefly at the Omega Workshops under Roger Fry and also worked with him on restoring the Mantegna cartoons at Hampton Court Palace.
World War One
On 10 September 1914, shortly after the start of World War One, Nash reluctantly enlisted as a private for home service in the Second Battalion, the Artists' Rifles, part of the 28th London Regiment of Territorials. Nash's duties, which included guard duty at the Tower of London, allowed him time to continue drawing and painting. In December 1914 Nash married Margaret Odeh, an Oxford-educated campaigner for Women's Suffrage, at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square. He began officer training in August 1916 and was sent to the Western Front in February 1917 as a second lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment. On the night of 25 May 1917, Nash fell into a trench, broke a rib and, by 1 June, had been invalided back to London. A few days later the majority of his former unit were killed in an assault on a position known as Hill 60. Nash considered himself lucky to be alive. While recuperating in London, Nash worked from sketches he had done at the Front to produce a series of twenty drawings, mostly in ink, chalk and watercolours, of the war. This work, which showed the influence of the Vorticist movement and their manifesto, the literary magazine BLAST, was well received when exhibited in June that year at the Goupil Gallery. A further exhibition of these drawings was held in Birmingham in September 1917.
As a result of these exhibitions, Nevinson advised Nash to approach Charles Masterman, head of the government's War Propaganda Bureau, to apply to become an official war artist. Nash was with a reserve battalion near Portsmouth, preparing to return to France in a combat role, when he received word that his commission as a war artist had been approved. In November 1917 he returned to the Ypres Salient as a uniformed observer with a batman and chauffeur. At this point the Third Battle of Ypres was three months old and Nash himself came under shellfire shortly after arriving in Flanders. In six weeks there Nash completed what he called 'fifty drawings of muddy places' and returned to Britain to develop them into finished pieces. These were exhibited in a solo exhibition entitled The Void of War at the Leicester Galleries in May 1918. The exhibition was critically acclaimed with most commentators focusing on how Nash had portrayed nature, in the form of devastated woods, fields and hillsides, as the innocent victim of the war. The success of the exhibition led to further official commissions, which he mostly executed as large oil paintings on canvas, that are among the most powerful and enduring images of the Great War painted by an English artist.
- The Menin Road, (1919). Early in 1918 Nash was commissioned to paint a battlefield scene for the Hall of Remembrance project. He choose to depict a section of the Ypres Salient known as 'Tower Hamlets' that had been devastated during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge. Nash painted the huge canvas, which was almost sixty square foot in size, at Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire using a barn as a studio between June 1918 and February 1919. The picture depicts a maze of flooded trenches and shell craters while tree stumps, devoid of any foliage, point towards a sky full of clouds and plumes of smoke bisected by shafts of sunlight resembling gun barrels. Two soldiers at the centre of the picture attempt to follow the now unrecognisable road itself.
- The Ypres Salient at Night, (1918). This canvas captures the disorientation caused by the changes in direction of the defensive trenches at the Front, which Nash would have been familiar with, and which was exacerbated at night by the constant explosion of shells and flares.
- We are Making a New World (1918). This painting is set in 'Inverness Copse', the site of heavy fighting in the summer of 1917 during the Battle of Langemarck, part of the Third Battle of Ypres. The title clearly mocks the ambitions of the war whilst the canvas shows the sun rising on a barren, devastated landscape.
- Wire, (1919), was originally titled Wire-The Hindenburg Line and again uses the destruction of nature, in the form of a tree trunk wrapped in barbed wire, to represent the horror and catastrophe of war.
Other notable works by Nash from this period include The Mule Track, A Howitzer Firing,. Ruined Country and Spring in the Trenches. Nash used his opportunity as a war artist to bring home the full horrors of the conflict. As he wrote to his wife from the front on 16 November 1917:
"I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls."
When the war ended Nash was determined to continue his career as an artist but struggled with periodic bouts of depression and money worries. Throughout 1919 and 1920 Nash lived in Buckinghamshire and in London where he made theatre designs for a play by J. M. Barrie. Along with several other artists, Nash became prominent in the Society of Wood Engravers and in 1920 was involved in its first exhibition. He became close friends with Eric Fitch Daglish whom he educated in the art of wood engraving and as a result Daglish became a successful engraver. From 1920 until 1923 Nash taught, on an occasional basis, at the Cornmarket School of Art in Oxford.
Dymchurch and Iden
In 1921, after visiting his sick father, Nash collapsed and, after a week during which he repeatedly lost consciousness, was diagnosed as suffering from 'emotional shock' arising from the war. To aid his recovery, the Nashs moved to Dymchurch which they had first visited in 1919 and where he painted seascapes, the seawall and landscapes of Romney Marsh. The seawall at Dymchurch became a key location in Nash's work. The conflict between land and sea depicted in the seawall paintings at Dymchurch recalled elements of Nash's paintings on the Western Front and were also influenced by his grief at the death of his friend Claud Lovat Fraser in June 1921. In 1922, Nash produced Places, a volume of seven wood engravings for which he also designed the cover, cut the lettering and wrote the text. At this time he also began painting floral still-lifes as well as continuing his landscape paintings, most notably with Chilterns under Snow in 1923. Throughout 1924 and 1925 Nash taught part-time at the Design School at the Royal College of Art. In 1924 he held a commercially successful exhibition at the Leicester Gallery. This allowed the Nashs to spend the winter near Nice and visit Florence and Pisa at the start of 1925 after which they moved home to Iden near Rye in Sussex. Iden and the Romney Marshes became the settings for a series of paintings by Nash, most notably Winter Sea painted in 1925 and reworked in 1937. In 1927 Nash was elected to the London Artists' Association and in 1928 held another successful exhibition of his paintings at the Leicester Gallery whilst an exhibition of his wood-engravings was held at the Redfern Gallery the same year. The Leicester Gallery exhibition was notable for showing Nash turning away from his popular landscapes and beginning to explore abstraction in his work.
This change in direction continued throughout 1929 and 1930 when Nash produced a number of innovative paintings,
- Landscape at Iden, with its seemingly unrelated objects placed beside each other amid strong architectural elements, showed the impression the 1928 London exhibition by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico had made on Nash.
- Northern Adventure and Nostalgic Landscape, St Pancras Station both paintings of St Pancras Station seen through a lattice work of abstract elements, derived from the frame of an advertising hoarding.
- The paintings Coronilla (1929) and Opening (1931) both depict openings between spaces in an abstract and cubist manner through which trees or the sea can be seen. The earlier Lares is in a similar style.
Nash often worked in media other then paint. As well as two volumes of his own wood engravings, Places and Genesis, throughout the 1920s Nash produced highly regarded book illustrations for several authors, including Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. Nash was one of the contributors of illustrations to the Subscriber's Edition of T. E. Lawrence's Seven pillars of wisdom, published in 1926. In 1921 Nash displayed textile designs at an exhibition at Heal's and in 1925 developed four fabric designs for the Footprints series sold by Modern Textiles in London. Later still, in 1933, Brain & Co in Stoke-on-Trent commissioned Nash and other artists to produce designs for their Foley China range which was showcased at the Modern Art for the Table exhibition at Harrods. In 1931, Margaret Nash gave him a camera when he sailed to America to serve as a jury member at the Carnegie International Award in Pittsburgh. Nash became a prolific photographer and would often work from his own photographs alongside his preparatory sketches when painting a work.
By April 1928, Nash wanted to leave Iden but did not do so until after his father's death in February 1929, when he sold the family home in Iver Heath and bought a house in Rye.
In 1930 Nash started working as an art critic for The Listener, and in his writings acknowledged the influence of the 1928 Giorgio de Chirico London exhibition and of the modernist works he had seen during a visit to Paris in 1930 at Léonce Rosenberg's gallery. Nash became a pioneer of modernism in Britain, promoting the avant-garde European styles of abstraction and surrealism throughout the 1930s. In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with fellow artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth and the critic Herbert Read. It was a short-lived but important move towards the revitalisation of British art in the inter-war period.
When in 1931 he was invited to illustrate a book of his own choice, Nash choose Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, providing the publisher with a set of 30 illustrations to accompany Browne's discourses. For Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial Nash also produced six larger watercolours, including Mansions of the Dead, and three oil paintings on the book's themes of death and burial customs. These became significant themes for Nash when in July 1933 he went to Marlborough on holiday and visited Silbury Hill and Avebury for the first time. This ancient landscape with its neolithic monuments and standing stones "excited and fascinated" Nash and stirred "his sensitiveness to magic and the sinister beauty of monsters" according to Ruth Clarke who had accompanied him to Marlborough. Nash went on to paint the landscape at Avebury several times in different styles, most notably in his two 1934 paintings, Druid Landscape and Landscape of the Megaliths. The 1935 painting Equivalents for the Megaliths stresses the mystery of the site by portraying it in an abstract manner rather than a more literal depiction. Nash appears to have been unhappy with the restoration work, started in 1934, at Avebury by Alexander Keiller, seemingly preferring the previous wilder and more unkept appearance of the area.
Nash wanted to move to live in Wiltshire but instead he left Rye for London in November 1933 before the Nashs undertook a long trip to France, Gibralter and north Africa. When they returned to England in June 1934, the Nashs rented a cottage on the Dorset coast near Swanage. Nash was asked by John Betjeman to write a book in the Shell Guides series. Nash accepted and undertook writing a guide to Dorset.
Between 1934 and 1936 Nash lived near Swanage in Dorset, hoping the sea air would ease his asthma whilst he worked on the Shell Guide to Dorset. He produced a considerable number of paintings and photographs during this period, some of which he used in the guide book. The guide was published in 1935 and featured some peculiarities of landscape and architecture that are often overlooked. Nash found Swanage with its diverse flora and fauna, fossils and geology to have certain Surrealist qualities. In an 1936 essay, entitled Swanage or Seaside Surrealism, he wrote that the place had something "of a dream image where things are so often incongruous and slightly frightening in their relation to time or place." Whilst there he met the artist Eileen Agar with whom he collaborated on a number of works. In Swanage, Nash produced some notable surrealist works such as Events on the Downs, a picture of a giant tennis ball and a tree trunk seemingly embarking on a journey together and, later, Landscape from a Dream, a cliff-top scene with a hawk and mirror. For a collage of black and white photographs entitled Swanage, Nash depicts objects found in, or connected to, locations around Dorset within a surrealist landscape. On Romany Marsh Nash found his first surrealist object, or Objet trouvé. This piece of wood retrieved from a stream was likened by Nash to a fine Henry Moore sculpture and was shown at the first International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 under the title Marsh Personage.
By the time of the exhibition Nash had come to dislike Swanage and in mid-1936 moved to a large house in Hampstead. Here he wrote articles on "seaside surrealism", created collages and assemblages, began his autobiography and organised a large one-man show at the Redfern Gallery in April 1937. That summer he visited the site of the Uffington White Horse in Berkshire and shortly afterwards began work on Landscape from a Dream. In 1939, shortly after World War Two began, the Nashes left Hampstead and moved to Oxford.
World War Two
At the start of World War Two Nash was appointed by the War Artists' Advisory Committee to a full-time salaried war artist post attached to the Royal Air Force and the Air Ministry. Nash was unpopular with the Air Ministry representative on the WAAC committee, partly because of the modernist nature of his work and partly because the RAF wanted the WAAC artists to concentrate on producing portraits of their pilots and aircrew. Whilst still a salaried WAAC artist Nash produced two series of watercolours, Raiders and Aerial Creatures. Raiders, or Marching Against England, was a set of studies of crashed German aircraft set in English rural landscapes with titles such as Bomber in the Corn, The Messerschmidt in Windsor Great Park and Under the Cliff. Whilst the Air Ministry could appreciate the patriotic intent and propaganda value of those works, the Aerial Creatures series, with its anthropomorphic depictions of British aircraft, displeased the Air Ministry so much they insisted Nash's full-time contract was ended in December 1940. The Chairman of WAAC, Kenneth Clark was aghast at this development and in January 1941 the Committee agreed to put aside £500 to purchase works from Nash on the theme of aerial conflict. Nash worked intermittently under this arrangement until 1944 to produce four paintings accepted by WAAC. These included Totes Meer (Dead Sea) and The Battle of Britain.
- Totes Meer (Dead Sea) was submitted to WAAC in 1941 and shows a 'dead sea' of wrecked German plane wings and fuselages based on sketches, and photographs, made at the Metal and Produce Recovery Unit at Cowley near Oxford in 1940. The painting recalls a series of bleak sea and coastal paintings Nash made in the 1930s. Although the aircraft dump at Cowley contained many British planes, Nash only depicted German aircraft because he wished to show the fate of the 'hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores'. He used the German title for the picture as he wanted it included in a series of postcards of crashed German planes he suggested be dropped over the Reich as propaganda. To this end Nash even created a postcard of the painting with Hitler's head superimposed on the wrecked aircraft. Kenneth Clark stated that Totes Meer was 'the best war picture so far I think' and is still considered among the most celebrated British paintings of World War Two.
- The Battle of Britain (1941) is an imaginative representation of an aerial battle in progress over a wide landscape of land and sea, suggesting the Thames Estuary and the English Channel. The white vapour trails of the Allied aircraft form patterns resembling buds and petals and appear to be growing naturally from the land and clouds, in contrast to the rigid, formal ranks of the attacking forces. Clark recognised the allegorical nature of the work and wrote to Nash, "I think in this and Totes Meer you have discovered a new form of allegorical painting. It is impossible to paint great events without allegory... and you have discovered a way of making the symbols out of the events themselves."
From 1942 onwards, Nash often visited the artist Hilda Harrisson at her home, Sandlands on Boars Hill near Oxford, to convalesce after bouts of illness. From the garden at Sandlands, Nash had a view of the Wittenham Clumps, which he had first visited as a child and had painted both before World War One and again, as a background, in 1934 and 1935. He now painted a series of imaginative works of the Clumps under different aspects of the moon. Paintings such as Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1943), and Landscape of the Moon's Last Phase, (1944), show a mystical landscape rich in the symbolism of the changing seasons and of death and rebirth. In his final years, Nash produced a series of paintings, including Flight of the Magnolia (1944), which he called 'Aerial Flowers' that combined his fascination with flying and his love of the works of Samuel Palmer. Nash also returned to the influence of William Blake that had so affected his early art, for example in the series of gigantic sunflowers including Sunflower and Sun (1942), Solstice of the Sunflower (1945) and Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945) based on Blake's 1794 poem "Ah! Sun-flower".
During the final ten days of his life Nash returned to Dorset and visited Swanage, Corfe, Worth Matravers and Kimmeridge Bay. Nash died in his sleep of heart failure, as a result of his long-term asthma, on 11 July 1946, at Boscombe in Hampshire (now Dorset) and was buried on 17 July, in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Langley in Buckinghamshire (now Berkshire). The stone carving of a hawk, that Nash had painted in Landscape from a Dream, was placed on his grave.
- 1922: Places, - text and wood-engravings,
- 1924: Genesis, - a book of wood-engravings,
- 1932: Room and Book, - essays on contemporary design,
- 1935: Shell Guide to Dorset, with Archibald Russell,
- 1949: Outline, - a partial autobiography published posthumously.
Sunrise, Inverness Copse (1918), Imperial War Museum
- Tate. "Artist biography, Paul Nash 1889-1946". Tate. Retrieved 24 May 2014.
- Stephen Farthing (Editor) (2006). 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. Cassell Illustrated/Quintessence. ISBN 978-1-84403-563-2.
- Nikos Stangos (1985). The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20274-5.
- Ian Chilvers (2004). The Oxford Dictionary of Art. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0 19 860476 9.
- David Boyd Haycock (2009). A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War. Old Street Publishing(London). ISBN 978-1-905847-84-6.
- David Boyd Haycock (2002). British Artists Paul Nash. Tate Publishing. ISBN 978-185437-436-3.
- Andrew Causey (2013). Paul Nash Landscape and the Life of Objects. Lund Humphries. ISBN 978-1-84822-096-6.
- Paul J. Gough (2010). ‘A Terrible Beauty’: British Artists in the First World War. Sansom & Company (Bristol). ISBN 1-906593-00-0.
- Art from the First World War. Imperial War Museum. 2008. ISBN 978-1-904897-98-9.
- Imperial War Museum. "The Menin Road". Imperial War Museum Collections Search. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
- Imperial War Museum. "The Ypres Salient at Night". Imperial War Museum Collections Search. Retrieved 21 February 2012.
- Ben Lewis (19 March 2010). "Private view:Paul Nash". Prospect. Retrieved 3 June 2014.
- Imperial War Museum. "A Howitzer Firing". Imperial War Museum Collections Search. Retrieved 21 February 2012.
- Paul Nash (1949). Outline : an autobiography and other writings. Faber and Faber, London.
- Horne, Alan. The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators: 162-163.
- Tate. "Paul Nash:Modern artist, ancient landscape:Room guide:Dymchurch". Tate. Retrieved 29 July 2014.
- Tate. "Catalogue entry for Landscape at Iden 1929". Tate. Retrieved 18 July 2014.
- Tate. "Catalogue entry for Lares". Tate. Retrieved 22 July 2014.
- Isabelle Anscombe (1981). OMEGA and after, Bloomsbury and the Decorative Arts. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27362-6.
- Michel Remy. Surrealism in Britain. Lund Humphries. ISBN 0 85331 825 5.
- Tate. "Display entry for Kinetic Feature". Tate. Retrieved 22 July 2014.
- The British Council. "Paul Nash". British Council. Retrieved 25 May 2014.
- Tate. "Catalogue entry for Mansions of the Dead". Tate. Retrieved 5 August 2014.
- Tate. "Catalogue entry for Equivalents for the Megaliths 1935". Tate. Retrieved 17 June 2014.
- David Dimbleby (2005). A Picture of Britain. Tate Publishing. ISBN 1-85437-566-0.
- "Mixed Gallery of Shell Art Collection Images". nationalmotormuseum.org.uk. Retrieved 19 October 2013.
- Tate. "Catalogue entry for Swanage c.1936". Tate. Retrieved 17 June 2014.
- Jane Ure-Smith (5 March 2005). "From Swanage with love". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 June 2014.
- Oxford Civic Trust. "Paul Nash (1889-1946)". Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Scheme. Retrieved 5 August 2014.
- Brain Foss (2007). War paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10890-3.
- Imperial War Museum. "War artist archive Paul Nash 1939-1945". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 3 June 2014.
- History Trails Wars and Conflict (11 April 2005). "Art in War:Exploring a Painting". BBC. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
- Imperial War Museum. "The Battle of Britain by Paul Nash". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 3 June 2014.
- Tate. "Catalogue entry for Wittenham Clumps c.1943-4". Tate. Retrieved 18 July 2014.
- Tate. "Paul Nash:Modern artist, ancient landscape:Room guide: The Wittenham Clumps". Tate. Retrieved 7 August 2014.
- Debra Lennard (January 2014). "Summary entry for Flight of the Magnolia 1944". Tate. Retrieved 18 July 2014.
- Jason Whittaker (11 May 2010). "Surreal sunflowers – Paul Nash and William Blake". Zoamorphosis The Blake 2.0 Blog.
- Seddon, Paul Nash, (1948), p.74
- Tate. "Catalogue entry for Landscape from a Dream". Tate. Retrieved 17 June 2014.
- Causey, Andrew Paul Nash (1980. Oxford U.P.) ISBN 978-1-85437-436-3.
- Colvin, Claire, Paul Nash book designs : a Minories touring exhibition (1982. The Minories, Colchester)
- Eates, Margot, Paul Nash : the master of the image, 1889 - 1946 (1973. John Murray, London)
- Jenkins, David Fraser (ed.), Paul Nash: The Elements (2010. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London)
- Postan, Alexander, The complete graphic work of Paul Nash (1973. Secker and Warburg, London)
- Russell, James, Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream (2011. Mainstone Press, Norwich) ISBN 978-0955277771.
- Seddon, Richard, "Paul Nash" Studio 135 (600), March 1948, p. 74 
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- Paintings by Paul Nash (artist) at the BBC Your Paintings site
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