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“The Rye Marshes”, 1932, by Paul Nash ( Ferens Art Gallery, ©Tate)


“So glad he didn’t put in a seagull!” This pert remark, made by the New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins, referred to a slightly prim and conventional lithograph by Eric Ravilious of Newhaven harbour. But the neatness of Paul Nash’s The Rye Marshes of 1932 invites a similar comment. Here an inlet zig-zags out to the sea amid a wide landscape, styled with Vorticist precision. Even the clouds are regimented. This may be an extreme example of Nash’s search for firm design, but the need for aesthetic control did not end with the canvas: he was equally concerned with the niceties of presentation, framing his pictures beautifully and keeping his drawings ready mounted. Visitors to his studio always found it tidy and well ordered. Nash himself dressed neatly, with a sharp sense of what was fitting. His correctness gave him the air of a trim naval officer. His mother’s family had belonged to the Navy, and only the failure of some entrance exams prevented the young Paul from following in the same profession.

Nash (1889-1946) is currently the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Britain. It contains more than 160 works, which make it the largest display of his art since the Tate retrospective in 1975. Nash is too important an artist ever to be out of sight, but recent solo shows have been either small or tightly focused, and this new exhibition offers a welcome opportunity to take a broader view of his work, the context in which he operated and the networks of which he was a part.

Perhaps more than any other 20th-century artist, Nash successfully reinvigorated the English landscape tradition in modern terms. Initially he drew landscapes of the mind, inspired by his reading of the romantic poets, his admiration for Blake, D.G. Rossetti and his friendship with the poet Gordon Bottomley. These are intense works, of considerable imaginative power, but once he began to focus on the outer world, he found himself able to transfer this depth of feeling to his drawings of nature, and most notably to his drawings of gardens and trees. This was the beginning of his involvement with the genius loci, with something that is evanescent, difficult to pin down, resistant to over-neat design and sometimes merely a matter of light. The strangeness in many of his landscapes often grows out of the tension between this allusion to the spirit of place and his love of formal clarity.

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