Paul Nash: A Very British Modernist

A major exhibition at Tate Britain offers a welcome opportunity to take in a broad view of an artist who reinvigorated art

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.

“Equivalents for the Megaliths”, 1935, by Paul Nash, ©Tate

What shook him to the core, and brought about a dramatic change in his art, was his experience of war and its effect on the landscape. Although he had told Bottomley, “I am not keen to rush off and be a soldier,” he enlisted with the Artists’ Rifles in September 1914 and took great care over the cut of his uniform and the quality of its cloth. For a period he was a map-reading instructor at Romford, where he met and formed a close friendship with the poet Edward Thomas. Posted to the 15th battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, he arrived in the Ypres Salient in February 1917, whence he immediately reported to his wife on the colours of the tents, the rusted corrugated iron roofs and the huge spouts of black, brown and orange earth that burst into the sky when a shell exploded. After only three months, he was returned to England with a broken floating rib, having stepped back while making a drawing and fallen into a trench. This accident may have saved his life: soon after, a great many in his unit lost their lives in an offensive.

Nash was fortunate in that an exhibition of his work, held in London while he was recuperating, brought his name to the attention of others. When he returned to Ypres, it was as a war artist. He who held dear a line by Tennyson — “I have felt I am one with my native land” — was faced with a landscape which the Battle of Passchendaele had utterly destroyed. “I am no longer an artist interested and curious”, he wrote, in a letter to his wife. “I am a messenger . . . Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth . . .” The accuracy of these words can still be felt at Tate Britain in front of the ironically titled We Are Making a New World (1918) and, his most famous war painting, The Menin Road (1919).

As a landscape artist, Nash from then on abstracted and remoulded nature according to his needs. This is most striking in The Shore (1919), its stark image a seeming reproach to the English love of the Picturesque. Soon after completing The Menin Road, Nash had blacked out and remained in a coma for a week. Advised to give up work for a while, he and his wife moved to Dymchurch, on the Kent coast, which he had previously visited. Before long he was again hard at work, producing drawings, watercolours, prints and oils of the beach and sea wall which protects Romney Marsh from flooding. Looking at The Shore in this exhibition, it is possible to sense how the maritime architecture of this coastline may have imaged his own need to protect unwanted memories from flooding in.

“Battle of Germany”, 1944, by Paul Nash (IWM London, ©Tate)

Nash is credited in the 1920s with reviving the art of watercolour painting by bringing to it a crisp mood and modern technique. Instead of flooding the paper with washes of colour, he mostly used a starved brush and in many places allows the white of the paper to show through, a technique admired and developed by Ravilious and Edward Bawden. By the end of the 1920s and during the early ’30s, they were not alone in regarding Nash as a father figure within the Modern Movement, as it was then called. John and Myfanwy Piper also looked up to him, and sought his support when they began publishing in 1935 Axis, an unfortunately titled magazine with an international outlook and dedicated to the promotion of abstract art.

In this same year Nash painted Equivalents for Megaliths. Again, this is one of the most striking images in the exhibition owing to its imperturbable strangeness. In the foreground are geometric forms which seem to uphold the same longevity as the calm landscape behind. This deliberate attempt to assert the eloquence of abstract shapes is interesting, for very rarely did Nash produce a wholly abstract painting. He seemed to regard the use of abstraction as a possible ingredient in the artist’s vocabulary but not a language in itself. One of his most revealing remarks was that made to Myfanwy Piper, in response to her request for a written piece for Axis to uphold the magazine’s commitment to abstract art. Nash wrote:

I discern among natural phenomena a thousand forms which might, with advantage, be dissolved in the crucible of abstract transfiguration; but the hard cold stone, the rasping grass, the intricate architecture of trees or waves, or the brittle sculpture of a dead leaf — I cannot translate altogether beyond their own image, without suffering in spirit.

Paul Nash, pictured in 1944 (©Picture Post/Getty Images)

For Nash, an additional problem lay in the conflict between the need to look forward as well as back; to strive for the contemporary while also recognising the significance of native traditions. He famously titled an essay he wrote “Going modern and Being British”, which sums up his position. At one point, as is made clear in one room at Tate Britain, he tried to marshal diverse artists into a more prominent position as the new avant-garde, and founded Unit One, chiefly as an exhibition society. He announced its existence with a letter to The Times, but after only a year the enterprise folded. Yet his commitment to the modern can be felt in everything did, in his fabric and theatre designs as well as his book illustrations. He was again at the forefront of the avant-garde in 1936. At that time the artistic sympathies he began to share with Eileen Agar, notably their interest in working with found objects, led to a year-long affair. A significant showing of her work is included in this current show, to point up this hitherto largely ignored exchange. Both were associated with the International Surrealist Exhibition, held that year, with Nash sitting on its committee. One of his exhibits was Room and Harbour in which a boat and the sea appear to flood into a room, the inappropriate conjunction of these two realities satisfying one of the protocols of surrealism, while also giving voice to Nash’s repeated interest in the uncanny.

Nash’s art nevertheless owes much to his awareness of continental European art, as this exhibition underlines. Often regarded as the epitome of Englishness, he neither wanted to shock or rebel but he frequently permitted a suggestion of fears, phantasies, desires and dreams to appear in his art, in contrast with the calm workmanlike appearance he presented to the world. He continued to develop as an artist even in his late work, during the Second World War. And visitors to this exhibition will find he ends with a colouristic blaze, in his Battle of Germany in 1944. For most viewers, even those familiar with Nash’s art, this exhibition offers new ideas and information, while also making apparent the overall coherence within Nash’s diverse oeuvre.

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