I first discovered the artist Paul Nash in my mid-teens (some forty years ago now) when I was writing about the First World War for my school history lessons. We were encouraged to stick pictures (or draw them) in our exercise books, to make our work more interesting and attractive, and I came across We are making a new world by Nash (above) and was immediately struck by the picture. It was far less representational than anything I had seen before at that age, but in the bold colours I saw a statement about the ruined landscapes of Flanders, that war had created something that was new and unfamiliar- and unnatural. The image remained with me, imprinted on my memory, long after the exercise books were marked and eventually discarded.
A few years later, when I was perhaps 17 or 18, I saw a BBC television documentary about Nash. A second image profoundly impressed me: The solstice of the sunflower. Almost his last painting, there was poignancy in it as well as a strangely English mix of surrealism and hill forts. It was very modern, but it referenced prehistory and ancient pagan ceremonies.
In the intervening years I have been to perhaps as many as three exhibitions of Nash’s work, as well as seeing them in galleries and buying quite a number of monographs about him. I came across a print of a very little known picture of his at the art gallery in Southampton when I was student, and felt compelled to buy and frame it, even on my modest grant income. Paul Nash’s work has always had a strong visual appeal and intellectual significance for me.
So, with excitement, I went to the Tate Britain the other morning. The exhibition spans Nash’s entire career and has a very good selection of his work. Some paintings I had never seen before; some I had never seen other than as reproductions. It was good to see pictures from private collections or from foreign galleries that I may never have the chance of examining up close again.
The exhibition starts with youthful works that bear the unmistakable imprint of Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites in their style, but very quickly Nash’s interest in English landscapes, scenes imbued with spiritual and historical significance, began to assert itself. His paintings of Wittenham Clumps are a good example. Like Nash, I have always been drawn to clumps of trees standing distinct on prominent and isolated hills (for example, May Hill in the Forest of Dean). The eye is drawn inexorably to them and I always want to climb such hills.
As Nash’s career progressed his style evolved, but his fascination with magical landscapes, natural forms such as mushrooms and seeds, ancient stones and forts, and the passage of the seasons, remained and coalesced. In his later pictures megaliths, the changing seasons on the Chilterns and the symbolic significance of vegetative life are united to create some masterpieces. He even imbues his paintings of the second world war with the same natural imagery and themes.
The show is open until March 2017. If you’re in London, I recommend a visit.
I have the following titles on my own bookshelves and recommended them as guides to the artists’ work and life:
- Emma Chambers’ catalogue to the exhibition;
- Andrew Causey’s book discussing Nash’s landscapes and the life of objects;
- Roger Cardinal’s book on Nash’s landscape vision.