Paul Nash: Whiteleaf Cross, 1931; Oil on canvas, 53.3 x 76.2cm; The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester. © Tate, London

The English Surrealist

19th February 2010

He is possibly best known for his work as a War Artist, particularly for his celebrated painting of the Battle of Britain. But, explains Jack Watkins, Paul Nash’s real achievement was to help Modernist ideas win respectability in the reactionary British art world of the early 20th century. The Dulwich Picture Gallery is staging a new exhibition – Paul Nash: The Elements – of the man the press once dubbed The English Surrealist

Paul Nash and Henry Moore were the two most significant figures in 20th century British art, argues David Fraser Jenkins, curator of a new exhibition on the former at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Although Moore’s name remains familiar, Nash’s somehow seems less so, underlined by this being the first London show dedicated to his work in a quarter of a century. Moore lived until he was nearly 90, dying in 1986, but, as Fraser Jenkins explains in the exhibition catalogue, because Nash died in 1946, aged 57, ‘his art seems more distant than it really was – there are no photographs of him as an old man, though he might have lived into the 1970s.’

In the mid-1930s, a photograph of the artist was printed in a newspaper with a caption labelling him the ‘English Surrealist-in-Chief’, but his work has none of the mischievous, attention-seeking outrageousness of a Dali. Rather it retains a distinctively English restraint and self-containment characteristic of Nash himself. He was, in truth, a contradictory figure, and his paintings can be hard to read, but at the root of his work lies a traditional Englishman’s love of the countryside. The desire among the English to return to some imagined rural idyll remains strong but, unguarded, easily sinks into sickly nostalgia, stifling conservatism and a hostility to all things urban or foreign. Nash, though, used this Englishness to create something new and, at times, quite unsettling. As such he was in the vanguard of the Modern Movement in British art – alongside the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Moore and Ben Nicholson, and an inspiration to those who followed, such as Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Edward Burra and Enid Marx.

Nash maintained that English art was characterised by ‘a pronounced linear method in design’, with colours ‘somewhat cold but radiant and sharp in key’. Modern art he assessed as anything that was not straightforwardly descriptive. His output matches both definitions, but perhaps the most appealing facet of his work philosophy was his belief that there existed quiet ‘places’ – to be found in towns as well rural areas – ‘whose relationship of parts creates a mystery, an enchantment, which cannot be analysed’. He first discovered such a place in a corner of Kensington Gardens, near where he was born in 1889, but he’d spend his life finding new ones, then using them in his art, not necessarily to depict literally, but to record their ‘inner lives’. In a way, Nash had uncovered not merely a fertile source of artistic inspiration, but a key to unlocking a true real feeling for the outdoors, and he would use this to telling effect when commissioned to write the Shell Guide to Dorset, published in 1936. As he said, this ability to find secret places lies within us all. ‘The secret of a place is there for anyone to find, though not, perhaps, to understand.’

When, in his boyhood, he moved with his family to Buckinghamshire, Nash immediately felt an affinity with the surrounding countryside. One of the earliest ‘places’ to inspire him was nearby Wittenham Clumps, a pair of round topped hills crowned by beech trees. His watercolour of the scene was executed in the pastoral phase of his early twenties, while yet suggesting – with its un-peopled ploughed fields and distant flocks of birds – both unease and loneliness. “Ever since I remember them the Clumps had meant something to me,” he was later to write. “I felt their importance long before I knew their history.” It was here, after long hours of observation, that he decided upon art as a career. “The life of a landscape painter… to get my living out the land as much as my ancestors had ever done.”

Paul Nash: Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, 1943 (detail);
71.2 x 91.4cm, Oil on canvas;
The Royal Collection.
© 2009, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

When he knew he was dying, Nash would return to Wittenham Clumps as a focal point once more in Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, completed in 1943. As Fraser Jenkins puts it: ‘The trees which he first drew as neighbours have become guardians of the last stage of his life.’ To Nash, trees were like human figures and, since he had always struggled to draw the latter, were often used to represent them, especially as substitute females.

As a younger man, Nash walked regularly in the Home Counties countryside, but it would be wrong to imagine him as a topographical artist, or as one interested in capturing the effects of the weather. Not only was Nash gassed in World War One, but he was also prone to bad attacks of bronchitis and asthma, and he had never learnt to drive. So his explorations were limited to places near wherever he was staying at any particular time. After experiencing an especially bad asthma attack in 1933, he found he could no longer work outside for long periods, and either sketched from a car driven by a friend, or took photographs which he could work from back in his studio. This, perhaps, rather suited the symbolist aspects of his approach, where paintings so often set in quintessentially English chalk downland landscapes yet resembled places of the imagination rather than identifiable locations. While the oil painting Event on the Downs might superficially bear parallels with the art of the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, the tree stump, the green of the downs, the white of the cliffs, and the tennis ball give it a mythically English quality that could have been used for a Shell travel poster of the time.

One of the most beautiful pictures in the show, which also encapsulates the way in which his work tends to elude understanding, is Pillar and Moon. Descriptively speaking, it shows a stone gatepost beside a row of trees that stretch into the distance, above the furthermost of which shines a full moon. The shape of the latter matches that of the sphere on top of the gate pillar. It has visual appeal, yet no obvious meaning other than a trite parallel between the man-made gatepost and the cosmos. It is, as Nash would have put it, ‘evocatory’, denying further logical explanation.

Many Nash watercolours show figures making their way along paths leading into woods or through fields, or along pathways separating the land from the sea. Living for a time at Dymchurch, Romney Marsh, he painted the narrow causeway that still runs along the seafront today. Sometimes figures stand by the edge of the frame, or they point the way along the path, as if reflecting a time in the artist’s own life when he was trying to find his way again after the horrors of the Great War.

Nash had served in the trenches at Ypres in 1917, before falling from a trench parapet and being sent home as an invalid. He then returned as an official war artist to witness the even greater horrors of Passchendaele in 1918, from which emerged We Are Making a New World. His first public success, it showed a turbulent, bomb-wrecked landscape, with ripped tree trunks like iron prongs, above which rises an optimistic sun. For Nash, one of the most poignant sensations of both the First and Second World Wars was the way fighting and bombing raids would often take place in a beautiful countryside where spring flowers were blooming and birds still singing in the woods. It was a ‘ridiculous mad incongruity!’, as he wrote in one letter home to his wife from the Ypres trenches.

From this disparity came the strange Bomber in the Corn, painted in 1940, and the twilight beauty of Totes Meer, with its half moon and white owl, hunting for prey over the turbulent ‘sea’ of wrecked aircraft. Totes Meer – which means ‘dead sea’ in German – was actually a dumping ground for wrecked enemy aircraft at Cowley, just outside Oxford. It was another of Nash’s ‘places’, and he believed this to be the best of his wartime pictures, better even than the more triumphal Battle of Britain (located at the Imperial War Museum).

Sadly, Nash would not long outlive the war. By the end of 1945, he was too ill to paint, and he died the following summer, leaving behind a body of work that showed it was, after all, possible to be a Modernist in England without provoking howls of outrage.

Paul Nash: The Elements continues to 9 May. See for more information.

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