Paul Nash is principally known as one of Britain’s greatest war artists, but a new Tate Britain exhibition illustrates an even greater depth to his work. Jack Watkins finds out more...
In November 1917 Paul Nash sent a letter back to his wife Margaret from the Allies HQ at Passchendaele, which had recently witnessed one of the bloodiest passages of fighting on the Western Front. ‘I have just returned… from a visit to Brigade Headquarters up the line, and I shall not forget it as long as I live,’ he wrote. ‘I have seen the most frightful nightmare… the stinking mud… the shell holes… the black dying trees… one huge grave. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. 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 forever.’
In this year in which the 100th anniversary of the similarly horrific Battle of the Somme has been commemorated, it seems fitting that Tate Britain should offer us the largest exhibition dedicated to Paul Nash in a generation, and the first at the Tate itself in forty-one years. He was, after all, arguably our greatest war artist, and one who suffered a delayed trauma from his experiences, resulting in a nervous breakdown in the 1920s. Yet, of course, his career extended beyond the 1914-1918 conflict, and though he died suddenly and early, aged 57 in 1946, he amassed a vast body of work, incorporating oil paintings, watercolours, drawings, engravings and photographs in a career lasting over forty years.
In a newspaper article in 1931, Nash was described as ‘the English Surrealist’. For all that, he has often seemed a reassuringly English artist, primarily a creator of landscapes of southern England, so that, although his work is distinctly more challenging than that of, say, Eric Ravilious – who studied under him at the Royal College of Art in the mid 1920s when Nash was a part-time tutor – it is still securely rooted in a kind of pre-industrial, almost prehistoric world, seldom populated by human figures, unmaterialistic and spiritual. Although often strange and mystical, he’s never truly unsettling, and very much a product of the British middle classes.
However, while this may be so, the Tate show is keen to remind us of his European connections – no Little Englanders here, thank you very much – emphasising, for instance, the influence of the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, who, for a period in the 1920s, was seen as one of the new pacesetters. Nash was also one of the organisers of the International Surrealist Exhibition, held at the Burlington Galleries in Mayfair in 1936. This was the event that introduced Surrealism to this country, though it also had an added farcical element when Salvador Dali, trying to give a lecture dressed in an old-fashioned deep-sea diver’s suit, started to suffocate, and was only saved when someone arrived with a spanner to extricate him from his helmet.
It’s hard to imagine what Nash would have made of that extraordinary spectacle. Born in 1888, he came from a very different generation. His barrister father moved the family from Earls Court, London, to Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire in 1902, in an attempt to improve the health of his wife who was showing the preliminary signs of mental illness. Some of Nash’s earliest pictures, created at Iver Heath, are on show in this comprehensive exhibition.
Very often, displays of an artist’s first works can seem perfunctory. Not with Nash. These early pieces are lovely, and, although his later abstracts were very different, contain the seeds of what was to follow. The ‘bird garden’ was a shrubbery in the Nash’s garden and it was here that the young artist developed his notion of the spirit of place – indeed, the idea that a particular spot could have a ‘spirit’. Many of his later works, like the familiar Wood on the Downs, painted in 1929, the result of his walks on the Chilterns, seem to reflect this quality.
Nash was fascinated by three feathered elms which lay at the bottom of the garden at Iver Heath, and he drew them repeatedly. He often said he tried to paint trees as if they were human beings, but when felled, they could take on a more threatening aspect. A later section at the Tate shows how, in the 1930s, he developed a series of photos of a pair of fallen elms which, in their prone state, had taken on the look of creeping monsters. Nash then exaggerated this quality to create some highly effective watercolours.
It was with his war art, however, that he established his reputation. The breakthrough piece was the ironically titled We are Making a New World, his first work in oil. It’s probably the most famous of all First World War paintings, though it doesn’t contain a single soldier. Instead, forlorn, shard-like trees, blasted of all branches, stand like sentries in a pock-marked, muddy Flanders landscape. Hanging on an adjacent wall is a larger work The Menin Road. This was an official commission, and was supposed to be displayed in a hall of remembrance, incorporating works by traditional and modern painters, from John Singer Sargent to CRW Nevinson. The hall was never built, and this vast and striking work, which shows the geometrical influence of the English Vorticist movement on Nash’s development, ended up in the collection of the Imperial War Museum. However, I also like a more modest piece, Spring In The Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917. It reminds us of Nash’s responsiveness to nature, even if it was a bittersweet observation. Despite depicting soldiers on guard in a trench in a once wooded area torn to shreds by shells only two months earlier, it shows that buds were already re-sprouting, the sun casting shadows, and the birds were singing.
Nash needed a bit longer to repair than Mother Nature, though. In 1921, diagnosed as suffering from ‘emotional shock,’ he and his wife moved to Dymchurch on Kent’s Romney Marsh. It was here, and nearby at Iden, near Rye, where they moved on to in 1925, that despite – or because of – his fragile mental state, Nash produced some of his most striking images. The marshes of Romney are desolate flat lands reclaimed from the sea in the middle ages, and the defences at Dymchurch sit low on the coastline. In some of Nash’s paintings, it’s as if the waters are about to swell up and smash through the sea walls, to submerge the land like an attacking army. In Winter Sea, the waves look like sheets of metal.
Increasingly, Nash’s work came to feature more abstract objects. Landscape at Iden had trees and logs, all exactly the sort of things you’d expect to see in a rural landscape painting, but he painted them in such a way as to give them symbolist overtones. Landscape from a Dream and Nocturnal Landscape really defy explanation, but are haunting just the same.
Nash produced more war paintings in the Second World War, very often showing wrecks of bomber and fighter aircraft, resembling alien presences on hillsides or in fields of corn. Long afflicted by a serious asthmatic condition, he spent his last months in what he termed a state of ‘reclusive melancholy’. He seems to have returned to much of the subject matter of his early paintings, and these works have a strange and solitary mystical air. He died too soon, and, as the exhibition is at pains to show, he was also a marvellous writer. No wonder he was revered by the generation of artists who learned under him at the Royal College of Art.
Paul Nash continues at Tate Britain until 5 March 2017 • www.tate.org.uk