A chronology of Paul Nash’s life will list his birth in urban London (1889) and his move, soon after, to Iver Heath in the Buckingham countryside. It will note that he attended Bolt Court Commercial Art School and The Slade School of Fine Art (1910-11), and that, subsequent to his training, he produced designs for Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops (see Vanessa Bell Biography). A chronology will mention his marriage to Margaret Odeh (1914), and the fact that, after the war, he taught in the Design School at the Royal College of Art where his students included Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden (see Artists). It will also remark the fact that Nash worked in a wide variety of media: oil, watercolour and wood engraving; that he designed book jackets and textiles, and that he worked in ceramics and glass. It will record the date of his death as 1946. But a scan of the first few paragraphs of virtually any book or catalogue on the works of Paul Nash (and a move from neutral chronology to the writer’s evaluation of the works) will almost invariably find the word ‘important’, or a synonym thereof, to describe Paul Nash’s place in twentieth century British art.
Nash was important because, in his capacity of Official War Artist in both World Wars, he painted some of the most iconic images: We Are Making a New World in the First World War, and Totes Meer, for example, in the Second; but he is important, too, because he helped introduce the British art establishment and public to the excitements and potentials of European Modernism, and because he helped to create the Surrealist movement in Britain.
Nash’s travels between the wars took him to Paris and to Italy. Here he encountered the avant-garde works of Matisse and Picasso, and of Georgio de Chirico who would become a leading inspiration for the Surrealists. Each of these artists would influence Nash’s work. In a metaphorical sense Nash travelled towards the same ground as these artists: away, that is, from the representational characteristic of his early work, via the abstract and towards the symbolic as evidenced in his later work.
Nash welcomed what he saw as Surrealism’s ‘release of the dream’, but he did so because, even in his early more representational work, he was interested in that which lay below the surface, or beyond the apparent. When he was young he was attracted to the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to Blake and to Samuel Palmer. In particular he identified with the almost mystical engagement and love of the English landscape as depicted by Palmer. What he saw attempted by Palmer was what he always wanted to achieve in his own work: to get to that which lay below or beyond the ordinary, to a portrayal of that which is sometimes designated the genius loci, or the ‘spirit’ of a place.
Time and again Nash sought to find and depict special ‘places’ as he called them. The sites he found to portray were often of recognised importance, like the prehistoric Wittenham Clumps or the Avebury Stone Circles; but Nash designated these as special ‘places’ not for their historical significance. As he wrote:…’there are places…whose relationship of parts creates a mystery, an enchantment, which cannot be analysed’.
These enchanted places were, of course, infused with the projections of parts of his own mind. Perhaps it is inevitable that a sensitive observer will colour that which he observes with his own thoughts and emotions. And as such, Nash’s paintings can often be seen as dark and melancholic, and his preoccupations with mortality over-riding in theme. Yet there is a quiet lyricism, too – not to say a sense of unalloyed beauty in some of his works (see Wood on the Downs, for instance).
However characterised in content, what Nash’s work always evinces is an attempt to go beyond the merely apparent, beyond the surface of things. As he wrote in his autobiography: ..’it was always the inner life of the subject rather than its characteristic lineaments which appealed to me, though that life, of course, is inseparable, actually, from its physical features’.*
* Outline: An Autobiography and Other Writings, Paul Nash, London 1949. p35-6
Public Collections holding work by Paul Nash include:
Tate, London; Aberdeen Art Gallery; V&A; British Museum; Ashmolean Museum; Imperial War Museum; Leeds Museums and Galleries (City Art Gallery); etc.