There aren’t many twentieth century painters whose work I can show here, but one of my favourites, Paul Nash (1892–1946), came out of copyright this year. I am seizing the opportunity to show some of his paintings in this and the subsequent articles in this short series about him.
He was born into an upper middle-class family in London, and when he was a boy the family moved into the countryside of Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire – 17 miles to the west of London, and intended to relieve his mother’s worsening mental illness. She died when Nash was only eighteen. It had been hoped that her son Paul would join the Royal Navy as an officer, but he failed the entrance exam, returned to school, and considered a career in art.
After a couple of years at college in London, mostly studying print-making, he enrolled at the Slade School of Art at University College, London, just eight months after his mother’s death. Henry Tonks, a former surgeon, was then the professor of drawing there, and Nash had several contemporaries who became well-known, including Stanley Spencer, Ben Nicholson, Dora Carrington, and CRW Nevinson. But he had great difficulties with figure drawing, started concentrating on landscapes, and dropped out after only a year.
Nash’s earliest substantial works date from about 1911, when he was strongly influenced by William Blake, The Ancients, in particular Samuel Palmer, and the Pre-Raphaelites, most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Pyramids in the Sea (1912), made in ink and watercolour, could easily have come from Palmer’s early years, such as his time at Shoreham in Kent.
During the remaining years prior to the First World War, Nash built his reputation for his landscape paintings, largely from motifs near his home at Iver Heath. He worked for a while in Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, and when war broke out enlisted in the regiment for artists, the Artists’ Rifles, in the part-time ‘Territorial Army’. He underwent training as an officer in 1916, and the following year was sent to the Western Front. At the end of May, he fell heavily in a trench, broke a rib, and was back in London by 1 June. A week later, most of his former colleagues were killed during the Battle of Messines.
Nash made a series of drawings from his experiences at the front, and was commissioned as an official war artist in late 1917. He returned to Ypres that winter, where he drew in pen and ink for six weeks before returning to develop his sketches into finished pieces.
The Cherry Orchard (1917) is a watercolour which Nash probably painted at that time, most likely back in England, whose original title is unknown. However, it could date from as early as 1914. It shows a geometrically-rigorous orchard of cherry trees in the late winter, with a small clump of snowdrops in flower at the lower right corner.
His model is thought to have been an orchard which had been owned by the Georgian poet, John Drinkwater. The trees and barbed wire fence are strongly reminiscent of the military defences used during the war, which has encouraged the opinion that Nash painted it in response to his service in 1917.
More typical of the paintings which he made of the Western Front is Nash’s watercolour Wire (1918), which had originally been titled Wire – The Hindenburg Line. It shows a characteristically deserted and devastated landscape, pockmarked with shell-holes, and festooned with wire fencing and barbed wire. Its only landmarks are the shattered stumps of what was once pleasant pastoral land.
A Howitzer Firing (1918) is one of Nash’s early oil paintings, and was commissioned by the Ministry of Information. It shows a four-man British guncrew working under a canopy of camouflage netting. In the sky, flying high above the flash of exploding shells, is a biplane. Behind this howitzer is another in the same battery, pounding away during the barrage.
Nash’s lithograph of Men Marching at Night (1918) shows a strong design influence, drawn from Blake and amplified by the regularity of military life. The long column of tight-packed soldiers is seen moving along an avenue of poplar trees, lit by an unseen full moon. CRW Nevinson helped Nash learn the process of lithography at this time.
Rain, Lake Zillebeke (1918) is a lithograph which Nash made from a drawing of soldiers walking along duckboards zig-zagging over the mud. Again it shows design influence, with the treestumps and flooded shell-holes arrayed in patterns.
Not all of Nash’s paintings from the front line were as bleak and stark. Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917 (1918) is based on drawings which he made slightly earlier, perhaps before he fell and broke his rib. Some of the trees in the distance still have branches and foliage on them, and the three soldiers appear idle.
Nash’s pen and ink drawing of Sunrise: Inverness Copse, showing the aftermath of heavy fighting during the Battle of Langemarck, became his finished oil painting of We are Making a New World (1918). Although richer in colour, the slime green furrowed mud dominates the lower half of the canvas. Its intensely ironic title and use of the early morning sun makes the artist’s response to the war very clear, and it has remained one of the strongest images of that war.
The Menin Road (1919) was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee in April 1918 for its Hall of Remembrance, for which John Singer Sargent’s Gassed was also intended. It shows a section of the Ypres Salient known as Tower Hamlets, after what is now a part of eastern London. This area was destroyed during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge. Nash started work on this large canvas in June 1918, completing it the following February.
After his war commissions were complete and he was ‘demobilised’, Nash returned to the Buckinghamshire countryside to live, but often worked in London. His oil landscape Behind the Inn (1919–22) set him on a new course, to recover from the horrors of war by painting the English countryside which he loved so much.
He developed his wood engraving skills, and in 1920 was involved in the first exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers. He also started teaching on an occasional basis in Oxford.
There is still time, if you are in or near London, to catch the last few days of the exhibition of his work at Tate Britain, which closes on 5 March 2017. Sadly it is not planned to move on to another location, but the Tate has the largest single collection of his work.
Wikipedia – an excellent and detailed account.
Chambers, Emma (ed) (2016) Paul Nash, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 84976 491 9.