That's How The Light Gets In

Paul Nash at Tate Britain: searching for a different angle of vision


Paul Nash first discovered Wittenham Clumps, two ‘dome-like hills’ in Oxfordshire with a ‘curiously symmetrical sculptural form’  in 1911. Between 1912 and 1946 he would paint them repeatedly as he sought to encapsulate there and in other places (such as the South Downs and the stone circles of Aylesbury) the idea of a ‘spirit of place’. Yet his engagement with the mystery and magic he found in certain landscapes was only one strand in the rich legacy of work left by Paul Nash. In his time he was official war artist in two world wars, and a pioneering figure at the heart of a group of artists who brought surrealism into British art, a painter who utilised photography, collage and assemblage in pursuit of his vision.

All of these aspects of Paul Nash’s work are explored in depth in Tate Britain’s vast and definitive exhibition which we saw while in London. It is a huge show of more than 160 works which convincingly presents Nash as not only a war artist of great importance, and a pioneering figure of the British avant-garde in the 1930s, but also as a romantic in the tradition of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, who, like them, created visionary landscapes drenched in symbolism and painted as if in a dream.

Entering the exhibition, the first words you see are from a poem written by Nash in 1909 for his friend, Mercia Oakley:

O Dreaming trees, sunk in a swoon of sleep
What have ye seen in these mysterious places?

In this first room, we are presented with a selection of Nash’s earliest work – drawings and watercolours which sometimes place mysterious figures in indefinable landscape settings or explore the dream-like atmosphere of a moonlit night scene. Perhaps reflecting on ‘The Pyramids in the Sea’, done in ink, chalk and watercolour in 1912, Nash spoke of how ‘my love of the monstrous and the magical led me beyond the confines of natural appearances into unreal worlds’.

Paul Nash ‘The Pyramids in the Sea’, 1912

In ‘The Wanderer’ – my favourite of these early works – a distant figure entering woodland has left a trail etched through a field of corn. There is no sense of a particular place or time, just a sense of the individual alone in nature.

Paul Nash, The Wanderer, 1911

‘The Cliff to the North’ is another haunting image painted after a visit to an artist friend on the north Norfolk coast. A female shadow is cast across a jagged cliff edge overlooking a cold, moonlit sea.

Paul Nash, The Cliff to the North, 1912

Gradually, figures began to disappear from these scenes and natural forms predominate – especially trees, which Nash invested with distinct personalities or ‘personages’, describing how he had tried ‘to paint trees as tho’ they were human beings’. Even though they are technically less proficient than what was to come, I like these early works for their haunting strangeness: they have the same effect on me as the paintings of Samuel Palmer.

Paul Nash, Night Landscape, 1912

Many of these early landscapes – usually ink drawings with washes of colour – explored the area around the family home, Wood Lane House at Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire, to which the family had moved in 1901 when Paul was 12.  In particular, he came to focus on a line of mature elm trees that marked the garden’s boundary. He named a group of these trees ‘The Three’, and they became particularly important presences for him.

Paul Nash, The Three, 1912

He drew them not at all in a generalised way but as individuals. … He showed their twigs and branches in an unblinking stare by daylight and as ink silhouettes at night, the sky behind them crowded with stars and shooting-stars, star dust.

– Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

Paul Nash, The Three in the Night, 1913

In October 1912 the Nash family visited relations who lived close to Wittenham Clumps, two hills each topped with beech woods, in what was then Berkshire but is now Oxfordshire. The two clumps of beech trees which crown both hills are the oldest known planted hilltop beeches in England, dating back over 250 years. This became a favourite place for Nash and a location that took on great significance for him. Between 1912 and 1946 he painted them repeatedly.

Paul Nash (third from right) and family in1912 at Sinodun House near Wallingford.

Walking from his uncle’s house, Nash discovered the Wittenham Clumps and immediately fell under their spell. In 1911 he wrote to his friend Mercia Oakley:

The country about and about is marvellous – Grey hollowed hills crowned by old old trees, Pan-ish places down by the river wonderful to think on, full of strange enchantment… a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten.

Christopher Neve, in Unquiet Landscape, reckons that from the first time he saw the Clumps, Nash must never have got them out of his mind:

He must have climbed up to them as a boy and never really escaped them. They mark an Iron Age fort, Stone Age ditches, the burial places of Roman pottery and Saxon bones, many layers of occupation, all of them hidden between roots and cowslips. … The hills themselves, which he always shows at a distance, are monuments in the landscape.

Wittenham Clumps in 1912 by  landscape photographer Henry Taunt

In September 1912 Nash returned to draw the Clumps for the first time.

I had come out to get a drawing of the Clumps. I wanted an image of them which would express what they meant to me. I realised that I might well make a dozen drawings and still find new aspects to portray… As I began to draw, I warmed to my task. For the first time, perhaps, I was tasting fully the savour of my own pursuit. The life of a landscape painter.

Paul Nash, The Wood on the Hill, watercolour, ink & chalk on paper, 1912

Writing in the Guardian in October at the time of the exhibition’s opening, Paul Laity described Nash as ‘One of the most interesting British landscape painters of the 20th century, much loved for his pictures that divine the ‘spirit’ of Avebury, Wittenham Clumps and other English places with which he felt a strong, almost mystical, connection:

Nash’s transformations of reality were the product of a visionary sensibility that harked back to William Blake and Samuel Palmer; he searched for inner meanings in the landscape, what he called the ‘things behind’. Yet he also was constantly on the lookout, as he said, for ‘a different angle of vision’, and as such was alert to the new movements transforming art on the continent, including abstraction and surrealism. His solutions to the problem of how to represent the forms and patterns of nature changed throughout his career. One thing stayed the same, however: his pictures are strange, unsettling and rather melancholy, and are so appealing precisely because of their strangeness.

Paul Nash, Wittenham Clumps, watercolour, 1913

Looking at these early drawings and watercolours, a shadow falls across my thoughts, a premonition of what is to come in the next section of the exhibition. In ‘We Are Making a New World’ and ‘The Menin Road’, Nash transformed his experience of trench warfare on theWestern Front into paintings which portrayed the ruinous destruction of war through massacred ranks of trees:

In Wytschaete Woods the trees were blasted apart. He drew them as splinters and stumps. In the Ypres salient, near Vimy, and along the Menin road in 1917, he drew the remaining trees like broken crosses, the sky beyond them no longer full of birds or stars but of constellations that exploded.

– Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

Paul Nash, We Are Making a New World, 1918

Although he had enlisted in 1914, it was spring 1917 before Nash arrived in the battle-scarred fields of the Ypres Salient in Northern France. Initially, he was impressed by the powerful continuity of nature in the midst of the bombed and battered countryside, and in his early drawings there he was drawn again to trees and natural scenes which appeared undisturbed by war. But after being invalided out following an injury, and then returning to the front his vision changed radically. Arriving in the aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele (during which his division was virtually annihilated) he depicted the horrors of war and expressed his outrage at the waste of life in landscapes in which nature is violated and trees, rather than humans, are ‘personages’ ripped apart and brutally torn asunder.

In the years following the war, Nash returned again and again to studies of groups of trees placed in the unimaginable, yet consoling, unchanging ancientness of their surrounding landscape. He returned to the Wittenham Clumps some time around 1935 when he painted the watercolour ‘Wittenham’. He would return again in the very last years of his life to produce the miraculous paintings that illuminate the final room of this exhibition.

Paul Nash, Wittenham, watercolour, 1935

Moving into the second section of the Tate exhibition we encounter Nash’s famously defiant statement – from a letter to Margaret Nash in November 1917 – in which he expresses his determination to make paintings that would articulate for those who had not seen it the apocalyptic nature of the destruction he was witnessing on western front:

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. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.

Nash had enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles in September 1914 and was stationed in England until 1917. He arrived at the Ypres Salient in March 1917 and initially was struck by the ability of nature to regenerate the battlefield, as depicted in ‘Spring in the Trenches’,1917. He returned to England in May to convalesce after breaking a rib in a fall. When he returned to Belgium at the end of October as an official war artist the landscape he encountered was very different. The landscape that Nash had seen defiantly in bloom in the spring was now a barren, blasted quagmire, littered with the dead.

‘We Are Making a New World’, is superbly displayed here. This evocation of a landscape destroyed by war, was the centrepiece of the exhibition in May 1918 which he called Void of War, as if it were about the end of mankind. A month before the exhibition opened he had been commissioned by the Ministry of Information to produce memorial paintings for a Hall of Remembrance – intended as a celebration of sacrifice and heroism – which was never built.

Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1919

The work that Nash produced – which included ‘The Menin Road’ – celebrated neither sacrifice nor heroism, but implacably and unflinchingly stared horror and death in the face. In his review of the exhibition for the Times, Waldemar Januszczak writes:

The huge painting that dominates his first war room, The Menin Road, from 1919, feels as if it has been crashed into the exhibition, rather than selected for it. It’s so suddenly harsh, so suddenly powerful. Across a gigantic expanse of mud, painted in his trademark greys, browns and beiges, a few tiny figures dodge between the broken stumps that rise out of the wasteland like burnt-out matches: the remains of the trees.

It’s a vision of apocalyptic devastation. The angular simplifications that Nash employs to create the landscape — the hard edges, the triangles — have been borrowed from cubism, but their effect here is to introduce the dangerous mood of broken glass to the scene: slashing and nightmarish. What a masterpiece.

Nash’s war experience transformed his work both emotionally and technically: he painted in oil for the first time and discovered a new artistic language of powerfully simplified forms which both conveyed the appearance of ravaged landscapes and suggested violent emotional experiences.

Paul Nash, After the Battle, 1918

One painting here – from a private collection – is rarely exhibited publicly (though I did see it two years ago in the extraordinary exhibition, The Sensory War 1914-2014, at Manchester Art Gallery). In ‘The Landscape – Hill 60’, painted in 1918, Nash documents the aftermath of the battle in which very many of Nash’s regiment were killed during an attack on Hill 60 in August 1917 – while he convalesced in in England.

It’s another remarkable painting in which Nash depicts the ruinous devastation of trench warfare without portraying a single dead body. Instead, the painting’s visceral impact derives from its vision of a depopulated wasteland of mud, acidic pools of water and blasted trees barely visible in the murk at the end of the world.

Paul Nash, The Landscape – Hill 60, 1918

After the war had ended, and up to 1921, Paul and his wife Margaret were living in the Chilterns. Like very many survivors of the war, he was finding it difficult to adjust. In July 1918 in a letter to a friend he wrote :

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 and terror of this war. Well it is on these I brood for it seems the only justification for what I do now.

Paul Nash in April 1918

During the next 18 months, he painted a series of watercolours which featured driving rain and vigorous winds. One of these – ‘Tench Pond in a Gale’ appears at the beginning of the next section of the exhibition, Places, which brings together works from the 1920s which were emotional responses to significant places. These included Whiteleaf in Berkshire, Iden in Sussex, and a striking sequence completed at Dymchurch on the Kent Coast. The Tate commentary suggests that Nash:

Responded both to the specific qualities of these landscapes and the feelings and memories that they prompted. Echoes of the Flanders landscape can be found in the recurring paintings of ponds which recall shell-holes, and in his series of stark paintings of the Dymchurch wall in which the geometric forms of the sea wall resemble the zigzag rhythm of the trenches. The Dymchurch works are also resonant of the emotional charge of his war experiences in their exploration of threat and defence as the sea sweeps in against the coastal defences, and ghostly cloaked figures haunt the sea wall.

Paul Nash ‘Tench Pond in a Gale’, pen, pencil and watercolour, 1921–2

In 1921 Nash suffered a severe breakdown, diagnosed as ‘war strain.’ To recuperate he rented a cottage, with Margaret, at Dymchurch on the Kent coast. He had chosen the place after a visit in 1919 when he had ‘been struck by its curious disposition behind a broad sea wall built to prevent the sea from flooding the low-lying Romney Marsh behind’ (Andrew Causey, Paul Nash: Landscape and the Life of Objects).

Paul Nash outside the cottage, in Dymchurch, 1920s

The paintings Nash made of Dymchurch – the bay dominated by its four-mile sea wall designed to protect the Marsh from flooding from the sea that has stood in various forms since Roman times – are one of the revelations of this exhibition. Nash considered them ‘a finite set’ and most of them are exhibited here together. The stark geometric forms of the concrete sea wall and breakwaters create a bleak landscape which reflected Nash’s mood, touched his imagination and inspired him to paint it dozens of times.

Nash would spend hours walking alone on the wall after dark. In Dymchurch, 1922, the grey concrete of the sea wall is echoed in the greyness of the sea and sky and , revealing the inconsequence of man in the face of the natural world.Most of the Dymchurch series are imbued with a sense of emptiness and starkness. We can see his vision evolving as the series develops.

Paul Nash, Dymchurch, 1922
Paul Nash, The Shore, 1922
Paul Nash, Wall Against the Sea, 1922
Paul Nash, The Wall, Dymchurch, 1923

The abstract forms of the Dymchurch shore, as well as the nearby Romney Marshes, became a preoccupation in Nash’s work until 1925, and it was during this period that he began to incorporate abstraction into his work for the first time. In paintings such as ‘Dymchurch Wall’, 1923 and ‘The Shore’, 1923, Nash translated the sea and landscape into a series of interlocking planes and geometric shapes.

Nash nearly drowned as a child and wrote that he associated the sea with ‘cold and cruel waters, usually in a threatening mood, pounding and rattling along the shore’. Andrew Causey, in his study Paul Nash: Landscape and the Life of Objects, speculates that for Nash the sea wall at Dymchurch was emblematic of a conflict between water and firm ground that also awoke memories of the western front:

The waterlogged Flanders landscape had been a danger apart from the fighting, with the risk to men and horses of becoming trapped in mud and even drowning, and at Dymchurch there is a possible reading of the wall both as a defensive and protective element against  the sea and also as a reprise, more solidly constructed, of the fragile lines of duckboards across the Flanders wastes.

Paul Nash, Night Tide Dymchurch, 1922
Paul Nash, Winter Sea, 1925

The most sombre of the series is the highly-abstracted ‘Winter Sea’ – solid planes of waves like ice, stretch into the darkness beneath a grey moon in a dark and threatening sky. The breakwater thrusts into the frozen waves like a bayonet. The sea is dead, a foretaste of the sea of wrecked iron that Nash would paint in ‘Totes Meer’ 15 years later – another exhibition high point to come.

Paul Nash, The Shore, 1923

The best work in this series is ‘The Shore’; it is a painting that chimes with Nash’s idea of ‘places…whose relationship of parts creates a mystery, an enchantment, which cannot be analysed’.

A less familiar image (because it has been borrowed from the National Gallery of Canada) is ‘Dymchurch Steps’, painted and re-worked between 1924 and 1944 . Although a realistic view of a scene at Dymchurch, it seems also to be a precursor of his later Surrealist compositions which would feature, in John Piper’s words, ‘an object in the wrong box’.

Paul Nash, Dymchurch Steps, 1924

In 1925 Paul and Margaret Nash moved to Iden near Rye. In his autobiography, the artist wrote that he was no longer inspired by Dymchurch:

I shall never work there anymore – a place like that and its effect on me – one’s effect on it. It’s a curious record formally and psychologically when you see the whole set together.

The rest of this section of the exhibition brings together paintings of other places which had a profound effect on Nash. In his autobiography, Outline, published in 1949, he wrote:

There are places, just as there are people and objects and works of art, whose relationship of parts creates a mystery, an enchantment, which cannot be analysed.

Paul Nash, Wood on the Downs, 1930

Here we find one of Nash’s most widely reproduced images: ‘Wood on the Downs’ which Nash painted during a visit to Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns in 1929. When he first discovered the wood, he described it as: ‘an enchanted place in the hills, girded by wild beech woods, dense and lonely places where you might meet anything from a polecat to a

An enchanted place in the hills, girded by wild beech woods, dense and lonely places where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dyad All the knolls and downs go rolling about against the sky with planes of puce-coloured fields stretching out below.

Nash would paint these ancient uplands with their hillforts, trackways and sacred sites many times. In this painting, the clump of beeches rises in a sculpted form before hills that roll away like waves on the sea.

Paul Nash, The Rye Marshes, 1932

Other works with which this section concludes are more mannered, either incorporating symbolic objects or juxtaposing architectural constructions with the landscape. In his autobiography, Outline Nash identified 1928 as the beginning of ‘a new vision and a new style’. He first saw Giorgio de Chirico’s work in London in 1928 and works after this year show de Chirico’s influence, suggesting mysterious narratives through isolated objects and strange buildings.

De Chirico’s influence is apparent in ‘Plage (Tower)’, which was known at first as ‘The Moorish Tower, Cros de Cagnes’ after the fishing village near Nice (now hard by the airport) where Nash had stayed in January 1925.

Paul Nash, Plage (Tower), 1928

‘Blue House on the Shore’, painted after another trip to the south of France in 1930 seems to echo ‘Dymchurch Steps’ in placing a substantial architectural object in the centre of a landscape.

Blue House on the Shore, 1930-1

There’s another mysterious painting here that harks back to the Dymchurch years.  ‘Nostalgic Landscape’contains surreal memories of  what Nash called ‘the strange coast’- the sea wall and the Martello towers can be identified in the background, while the painting is dominated by a strange building with a disturbing  tunnel-like archway that stretches into darkness. It was, in Nash’s time at least, a real, existing building: an old canal sluice, erected in 1876, later used as a searchlight tower during World War II, and demolished in 1997.

Paul Nash, Nostalgic Landscape, 1923

Nash is celebrated for the work that book-ended his career – as a war artist in two world wars – and perhaps most of all for his landscapes that ineffable thing he named the genius loci, or  spirit of place. At this point in the exhibition we have seen many of these landscapes, and we will encounter some of his greatest before the end.

But now Tate Britain guide us through a series of rooms which seek to place him at the forefront of progressive art in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s, ‘a key figure in debates about British art’s relationship to international modernism.’ These are instructive but have less of the emotional punch of the earlier and later rooms.

Nevertheless, these rooms document the central element in Nash’s thinking in this period. For some time he had been interested in the relationship between native tradition and the modernist breezes blowing in from the continent. In 1932 he wrote an article in which he pondered the question:

Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today. … The battle lines have been drawn up: internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile.

‘Nash did not want his art to be severed by these battle lines,’ Alexandra Harris observed in Romantic Moderns, and one room documents how Nash played a pivotal role in establishing, in 1933, a modernist group called Unit One dedicated, as Nash put it in a letter to the Times, to ‘the expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for that thing which is recognised as peculiarly of to-day in painting, sculpture, and architecture’.

Paul Nash, Voyages of the Moon 1934-7

Unit One included artists such as Ben Nicholson, Edward Burra, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, all broadly aligned with either abstraction or surrealism, and – as Nash’s Times letter set out – opposed to the dominant naturalist tendency in English art. Examples of their work (including a superb Ben Nicholson, ‘1933 (Milk and Plain Chocolate’ from a private collection) are displayed alongside examples of Nash’s work – most notably ‘Voyages of the Moon’ based on a drawing Nash made in Toulon of electric globe ceiling lamps repeatedly reflected in the mirrored walls of a restaurant.

Unit One had broken up by 1935, but for Nash it had been important in publicly stating his commitment to international modernism and positioning himself alongside other leading British avant-garde artists. Later, Nash was a leading light in the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936.

Paul Nash, Harbour and Room, 1932-6

The Tate gives this episode some prominence, including several of Nash’s paintings that were displayed in ‘the 1936 show. One of these, ‘Harbour and Room’, reflects an aspect of Surrealist paintings that most interested Nash – their poetic representation of sleep and dreams. This particular painting followed six weeks spent by the Nashs in Toulon and other towns along the Mediterranean coast in 1930. In Toulon they had stayed at the Hotel du Port which overlooked the harbour occupied  at the time by the French Fleet. As if in a Magritte painting, a French warship seems to sail into the room as its occupants sleep and dream, while water laps towards the fireplace and mirrored wall.

Throughout this period landscape remained Nash’s essential subject, even though he wrote insisting that ‘landscape, as a scene, ceased to be absorbing’, adding that ‘some drama of beings seemed necessary’. His paintings become landscapes of the mind that combined, as Herbert Read commented, the European influence of Surrealism, while maintaining the English character of his work. He wrote:

The striking peculiarity of Paul Nash is that, alone in his generation, he has dared to transform the English tradition.

Paul Nash, Druid Landscape, 1934

The landscapes I have in mind are not 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.
–Paul Nash, ‘Unseen Landscapes’, Country Life, May 1938

In the summer of 1933 Nash first encountered the Avebury megaliths, the largest prehistoric stone circle in Europe. He recalled:

Last summer I walked in a field near Avebury where two rough monoliths stand, up to 16 feet high, patterned with black and orange lichen, a remnant of the avenue of stones which led to the great circle. 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. A mile away, a green pyramid cast a gigantic shadow, in the hedge 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, megalith at Avebury
Paul Nash, megalith at Avebury

Nash took a number of photographs at Avebury (some of which are exhibited) which he may have later used as references for such work as ‘Druid Landscape’ painted the following year in 1934.

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Megaliths, 1934

More paintings inspired by Avebury were produced by Nash, though they are not all of a kind. ‘Landscape of the Megaliths in 1934 is a kind of abstracted realism, while in ‘Equivalents of the Megaliths’ from the following year abstraction takes centre stage. All three of these works were painted for the Unit One exhibition, and all were ‘attempts to solve the equation’.

Paul Nash, Equivalents of the Megaliths, 1935

In the 1930s found objects added another element to Nash’s work. In 1934 he discovered a piece of driftwood, which he later called Marsh Personage, describing how he ‘was instantly and intensely aware of being in the presence of what he could only describe as a ‘personage’. He began to explore the idea of a life force in inanimate objects by arranging juxtapositions of flints, bones, driftwood, and small geometric objects to create still life compositions.

One example on display here is ‘Group for Sculptor’, a watercolour  made for Henry Moore in 1931 of an assemblage of dried leaves, lichen-encrusted branches, a hazelnut and a tennis ball.

In 1935, he met Eileen Agar when he was living at Swanage on the Dorset coast, and together the two artists explored André Breton’s and Salvador Dalí’s idea of the found object – one created by the artist finding it, but which had always been waiting in the unconscious. and the creative possibilities of photography, collage and assemblage.

Paul Nash, Event on the Downs, 1934

The tennis ball turned up again in ‘Event on the Downs’ along with a tree stump and a view of the coastal landscape near Swanage. Perhaps a realisation of de Chirico concept of the ‘uncanny narrative’, ‘Event on the Downs’ depicts a fairly realistic view (from Ballard Down, near Swanage, where Nash and his wife stayed between October 1934 and February 1935) but with the additional incongruous placement of three motifs which are recurrent in Nash’s art of this time: the tennis ball, the tree stump and the cloud.

Nash was developing a concept of ‘unseen landscapes’, in which the artist made visible what had previously been overlooked by drawing on surrealist ideas to interpret the British landscape. After his participation in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, Nash painted some of his most intensely surrealist landscapes in which reality and dream co-existed, as fantastic environments were created from irrational juxtapositions of observed places and objects. The concept of the ‘object personage’ also remained important to Nash, particularly in his series Monster Field in which he created a narrative around the monstrous personalities of a group of fallen trees.

Paul Nash, Nocturnal Landscape, 1938

‘Nocturnal Landscape’ forms a surreal landscape with its fragments of antler, strange shaped flint-like boulders on a beach, some sort of wooden lattice casting long shadows, and the standing stones of the Cornish Men-an-Tol at the edge of moonlit sea. There was plenty more where this came from ….

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream, 1936
Paul Nash, Circle of the Monoliths, 1937

‘Circle of the Monoliths’ is a double sided painting from 1937 which brings together the Avebury stones and the chalk cliffs around Swanage. On the reverse is a composition called ‘The Two Serpents’ painted eight years. Both are from a private collection and have never been exhibited before.

Then, abruptly, wartime returns.

When the War came, suddenly the sky was upon us all like a huge hawk hovering, threatening. Everyone was searching the sky waiting for some terror to fall; I was
hunting the sky for what I most dreaded in my own imagining. It was a white flower … the rose of death, the name the Spaniards gave to the parachute.

– Paul Nash, Aerial Flowers, 1945

Nash was appointed as an official war artist by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in March 1940. He was inspired by the piles of crashed German planes at the Cowley Dump near Oxford, taking numerous photographs of them which he used as the basis of the painting ‘Totes Meer’. They are displayed nearby, along with a short documentary film of the time in which Nash talks about the making of the work.

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940

In ‘Totes Meer’ Nash drew on surrealist ideas to transform the twisted mass of crashed planes into the waves of a metal sea. He wrote to Kenneth Clark, the Chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, describing the dream-like, or rather, nightmare, vision that had come upon him at the Cowley Dump:

The thing looked to me suddenly, like a great inundating sea. You might feel – under certain influences – a moonlight night for instance – this is a vast tide moving across the fields, the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no: nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead. It is metal piled up, wreckage.

It is hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores. By moonlight, this waning moon, one could swear they began to move and twist and turn as they did in the air. A sort of rigor mortis? No, they are quite dead and still. The only moving creature is the white owl flying low over the bodies of the other predatory creatures, raking the shadows for rats and voles.’

The owl can be seen low on the horizon on the right.

Standing before this painting I thought how extraordinary it was that Paul Nash served as a war artist in two World Wars, producing in each one its most significant painting, in each of which there are no human figures.

Paul Nash, Battle of Germany, 1944

No less powerful is ‘Battle of Germany’, conceived as a counterpart to the better-known ‘Battle of Britain’. This work was commissioned by the WAAC in 1944 and was originally intended to depict a flying bomb, but instead Nash produced a painting which imagines the fear and violence of a bombardment experienced by the population of an enemy city. Nash wrote a text to accompany the painting:

The moment of the picture is when the city, lying under the uncertain light of the moon, awaits the blow at its heart. In the background, a gigantic column of smoke arises from the recent destruction of an outlying factory which is still fiercely burning. These two objects pillar and moon seem to threaten the city no less than the flights of bombers even now towering in the red sky. The moon’s illumination reveals the form of the city but with the smoke pillar’s increasing height and width, throws also its largening shadow nearer and nearer.

In contrast to the suspense of the waiting city under the quiet though baleful moon, the other half of the picture shows the opening of the bombardment. The entire area of sky and background and part of the middle distance are violently agitated. Here forms are used quite arbitrarily and colours by a kind of chromatic percussion with one purpose, to suggest explosion and detonation. In the central foreground the group of floating discs descending may be a part of a flight of paratroops or the crews of aircraft forced to bale out.’

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Summer Solstice, 1943

And so to the last pictures in a final room that knocks the socks off everything else seen so far. The room is filled with the pictures which Nash made in what he described as ‘my last phase’, in the last four years of his life from 1942 to 1946.

By the early 1940s Nash’s health was declining. Suffering from chronic asthma, he had endured several spells in hospital. Now living in Oxford, he and his wife, Margaret, began to make visits to the home of a life-long friend, Hilda Harrison, on Boar’s Hill, from which he could just see Wittenham Clumps in the distance. So he returned to the ‘compelling magic’ of this earlier place, a landscape of the imagination in which Nash now explored the mystic resonance of days when the seasons change, such as the spring equinox and the summer solstice.

Across a distance of around 8 miles, Nash was reunited with the place that had first inspired him more than 30 years ago. He embarked on a series of paintings that were to become some of the finest of his career. To bring the Clumps closer he viewed them through field glasses, creating an unusual foreshortened perspective in the paintings and enhancing their feeling of mystery.

These were paintings in which the  sun and moon were significant symbolic presences, in which Nash used rich vibrant colour to convey his emotional response to the landscape. He began with ‘Sunflower and Sun’, the first of a series which make the connection between the flower and its celestial counterpart. In Unquiet Landscape, Christopher Neve writes of Nash’s imagination going ‘cartwheeling’ into the space he could see from the first-floor balcony of the house at Boar’s Hill: ‘a space inhabited in the paintings by flowerheads, drifting seeds, clouds and equinoctial moons.’

Paul Nash, November Moon, 1942

The pictures, writes Neve, have none of the ‘clear angles and geometric architecture’ of earlier work. Nash himself wrote:

Everything I am thinking of and imagining now tends towards objects poised, floating or propelled through the middle and upper air, earth, the spaces of the skies and the miraculous cloudscapes that constantly form, change and disappear. … I have become increasingly absorbed in the study of light and the drama of the great luminaries. Particularly the moon and her influence upon all nocturnal objects.

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase, 1944
Paul Nash, Landscape Of The Brown Fungus, 1943

With the sense he had not long to live – and with the countryside threatened by war – Nash summoned the energy to create vivid paintings symbolically exploring the relationship of the sun and the moon, the cycles of nature, life and death: ‘the English landscape as an aspect of time’, in Christopher Neve’s summation. As he worked on the series his colours became more vivid and his brushwork more expressive than ever before.

Paul Nash in his studio with two versions of ‘Landscape of the Vernal Equinox’.
Paul Nash, Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, 1944
Paul Nash, Landscape of the Vernal Equinox III, 1944

These paintings chart the cycles of the seasons, from spring through the summer solstice, to autumnal fungi and decay. Then, in his final months, the theme of the summer solstice and the sunflower took over, as Nash produced a series of paintings which he called ‘Aerial Flowers’. The sunflower paintings combined his love of the works of Samuel Palmer and William Blake who had so influenced his early work.

Paul Nash, Sunflower and Sun, 1942

In the series of gigantic sunflowers that dominate the final room at Tate Britain – ‘Sunflower and Sun’ (1942), ‘Solstice of the Sunflower’ (1945) and Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945), based on Blake’s 1794 poem ‘Ah! Sun-flower’, Nash responds both to the bright energy of the flower, as well as the melancholy within Blake’s original poem:

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Interestingly, a decade earlier in an article on ‘Abstract Art’ for The Listener in 1932, Nash had written of how his fascination with Blake had underpinned his approach to landscape:

Perhaps the strongest contribution to the history of the pictorial subject in England, and one whose character is, in a sense, extremely modern, was made by William Blake. Blake is said to have hated Nature, and his work certainly shows a contempt for natural appearances. Like the Surrealists of today he sought material for his pictures in other worlds. Within the realm of the mind he conceived certain very precise and solid images, bright with colour and of a rather persistent curvilinear design. The finest of these do indeed burn with unreal life and seem the product of unique vision.

‘Solstice of the Sunflower’ is one of Nash’s last two oil paintings. The year after it was made, Nash, who had been diagnosed with bronchial asthma in 1933, caught pneumonia and died on 11 July, aged only 57.

The view of the Wittenham Clumps from Boar’s Hill was obscured during the summer by tall sunflowers in front of the window. Nash became absorbed by the rhyming shapes of the sunflower heads, the round hills of the Clumps and the moon or sun in the sky. He planned to make a group of four paintings using the sunflower as an emblem of the sun in the sky. He was unable to complete the series before he died but he wrote:

In three pictures the flower stands in the blue sky in place of the sun. But in the ‘Solstice’ the spent sun shines forth from its zenith encouraging the sunflower in the dual character of sun and firewheel to perform its mythological purpose.

Along with ‘Eclipse of the Sunflower’, ‘Solstice of the Sunflower’, was inspired by his reading of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion in which he found descriptions of the traditional European custom, at the time of the solstice, of binding stubble to a cartwheel, setting the stubble alight and rolling the firewheel downhill. Nash described the subject of this painting:

The spent Sun shines from its zenith encouraging the Sunflower in the dual role of sun and firewheel to perform its mythological purpose. The Sun appears to be whipping the Sunflower like a top. The Sunflower Wheel tears over the hill cutting a path through the standing corn and bounding into the air as it gains momentum. This is the blessing of the Midsummer Fire.

Paul Nash, Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945

Painted as the war dragged on and with his health rapidly declining, these images speak of the endurance of nature and the cycle of life and death marked by the seasons. Another aspect of his thinking, relevant to these pictures, was revealed in his essay ‘Aerial Flowers’ (published posthumously in 1947). From childhood, he had been fascinated with flight, though chronic poor health prevented him from ever going up in a plane. Now, as he painted visions of vast flowers looming and drifting over British fields, he wrote of his belief that death would release him to a similar kind of weightlessness:

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.

Paul Nash, Eclipse of the Sunflower, 1945

In Unquiet Landscape, Christopher Neve writes that, as Nash became aware of  his death advancing, he took comfort from the knowledge that the landscape would last, that ‘in their curious way the moments would last which in his pictures he chose to show as places. Neve concludes his essay on Nash by quoting, appropriately I think, Louis MacNeice’s ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’, composed in the 1930s amidst forebodings of coming conflict. As we imagine Nash staring out over the garden at Boar’s Hill towards the familiar sight of Wittenham Clumps, MacNeice’s words seem fitting:

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

Nash’s late paintings have been widely regarded as his best. In English Art and Modernism, Charles Harrison described them as ‘rich and poetic … the finest of his works’, while Jemima Montagu argued that ‘Nash was able to develop a unique form of expression which evolved out of, and yet has come to define, an idea of the English landscape’. This show at Tate Britain proves, in Waldemar Januszcak’s words, that:

Nash … was the greatest British landscape artist of the 20th century, and his deeply personal understanding of the countryside as the locus for forces that are ancient and mystical was as endemic as it was persistent.

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