Paul Nash (artist)

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Paul Nash
Nash, Totes Meer.jpg
Totes Meer (Dead Sea)
(between 1940 and 1941, Tate Gallery)
Born (1889-05-11)11 May 1889
London, U.K.
Died 11 July 1946(1946-07-11) (aged 57)
Boscombe, Dorset, U.K.
Nationality British
Education Slade School of Art
Known for Painting, Printmaking
Movement Surrealism
For other people named Paul Nash, see Paul Nash.

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.[1] 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.[2] The artworks he produced during World War One are among the most iconic images of the conflict. After the war he continued to focus on landscape painting, originally in a formalized, decorative style but, throughout the 1930s, in an increasingly abstract and surreal manner.[3] 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.

He was the older brother of the artist John Nash.[4]

Early life[edit]

The son of a successful lawyer and a mentally unstable mother who died in a mental asylum in 1910,[5] Nash was born in London and was educated at St Paul's School. Nash was originally intended for a career in the navy, like his maternal grandfather. However, he failed his exams and decided to take up art as a career. Studying first at the Chelsea Polytechnic, he then went to the London County Council School of Photo-engraving and Lithography, where his work was spotted and praised by Selwyn Image. He was advised by his friend, the poet Gordon Bottomley, and 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'.[5]

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' (the first included Augustus John and Percy Wyndham Lewis). 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. Influenced by the poetry of William Blake and the paintings of Samuel Palmer and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Nash had shows in 1912 and 1913 (sometimes alone, sometimes with his brother John), largely devoted to drawings and watercolours of brooding landscapes. By summer 1914 he was enjoying some success.

World War One[edit]

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.[5] 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 literary magazine BLAST and the Vorticist movement, to which it was a manifesto, 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.[6]

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.[5] 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.[7]

The Menin Road (1919) (Art. IWM ART 2242)
The Ypres Salient at Night (1918)(Art.IWM ART 1145)
  • 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.[8][9]
  • 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.[8][10]
  • 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.[8]
  • 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,.[11] 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."[12]

Inter-war years[edit]

In the early 1920s, Nash, along with several other artists became prominent in the Society of Wood Engravers and in 1920 was involved in its first exhibition.[13] 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.[13] Nash was one of the contributors of illustrations to T. E. Lawrence's Subscriber's Edition of the latter's book Seven pillars of wisdom, published in 1926.

Nash was a pioneer of modernism in Britain, promoting the avant-garde European styles of abstraction and surrealism in the 1920s and 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.[14]

Nash found much inspiration in the British landscape, particularly landscapes with a sense of ancient history, such as burial mounds, Iron Age hill forts such as Wittenham Clumps and the standing stones at Avebury in Wiltshire. When in 1932 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 32 illustrations to accompany Browne's discourses. Nash was asked by John Betjeman to write a book in the pre-war Shell Guide 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.[15] 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."[16] 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 Landscape from a Dream, a cliff-top scene with a hawk and mirror.[17] 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.[16]

World War Two[edit]

Battle of Germany (1944) (Art.IWM ART LD 4526)
Defence of Albion (Art. IWM ART LD 1933)
Battle of Britain (1941) (Art.IWM ART LD 1550)

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.[18][19] 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 made at the Metal and Produce Recovery Unit at Cowley near Oxford in 1940.[20] 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.[20] 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.[19][21]
  • 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.[22] 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."[21]

In his final years, Nash returned to the influence of 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".[23][24]


During the final ten days of his life Nash returned to Dorset and visited Swanage, Corfe, Worth Matravers and Kimmeridge Bay.[16] Nash died 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.[25]


  • 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.



  1. ^ Tate. "Artist biography, Paul Nash 1889-1946". Tate. Retrieved 24 May 2014. 
  2. ^ Stephen Farthing (Editor) (2006). 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. Cassell Illustrated/Quintessence. ISBN 978-1-84403-563-2. 
  3. ^ Nikos Stangos (1985). The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20274-5. 
  4. ^ Ian Chilvers (2004). The Oxford Dictionary of Art. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0 19 860476 9. 
  5. ^ a b c d 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. 
  6. ^ Andrew Causey (2013). Paul Nash Landscape and the Life of Objects. Lund Humphries. ISBN 978-1-84822-096-6. 
  7. ^ Paul J. Gough (2010). ‘A Terrible Beauty’: British Artists in the First World War. Sansom & Company (Bristol). ISBN 1-906593-00-0. 
  8. ^ a b c Art from the First World War. Imperial War Museum. 2008. ISBN 978-1-904897-98-9. 
  9. ^ Imperial War Museum. "The Menin Road". Imperial War Museum Collections Search. Retrieved 28 May 2014. 
  10. ^ Imperial War Museum. "The Ypres Salient at Night". Imperial War Museum Collections Search. Retrieved 21 February 2012. 
  11. ^ Imperial War Museum. "A Howitzer Firing". Imperial War Museum Collections Search. Retrieved 21 February 2012. 
  12. ^ Paul Nash (1949). Outline : an autobiography and other writings. Faber and Faber, London. 
  13. ^ a b Horne, Alan. The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators: 162-163.
  14. ^ The British Council. "Paul Nash". British Council. Retrieved 25 May 2014. 
  15. ^ "Mixed Gallery of Shell Art Collection Images". Retrieved 19 October 2013. 
  16. ^ a b c Tate. "Catalogue entry for Swanage c.1936". Tate. Retrieved 17 June 2014. 
  17. ^ Jane Ure-Smith (5 March 2005). "From Swanage with love". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 June 2014. 
  18. ^ Brain Foss (2007). War paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10890-3. 
  19. ^ a b Imperial War Museum. "War artist archive Paul Nash 1939-1945". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 3 June 2014. 
  20. ^ a b History Trails Wars and Conflict (11 April 2005). "Art in War:Exploring a Painting". BBC. Retrieved 28 May 2014. 
  21. ^ a b David Dimbleby (2005). A Picture of Britain. Tate Publishing. ISBN 1-85437-566-0. 
  22. ^ Imperial War Museum. "The Battle of Britain by Paul Nash". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 3 June 2014. 
  23. ^ Jason Whittaker, "Surreal sunflowers – Paul Nash and William Blake".
  24. ^ Seddon, Paul Nash, (1948), p.74
  25. ^ Tate. "Catalogue entry for Landscape from a Dream". Tate. Retrieved 17 June 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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)
  • Haycock, David Boyd, Paul Nash (2002. Tate Publishing, London) ISBN 1-85437-436-2.
  • 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 [1]

External links[edit]