Monday, 18 July 2011

British Masters: Paul Nash

Paul Nash's grave in Langley
Paul Nash suffered a great deal in life but died peacefully in his sleep after making a final sketch from the balcony of a hotel in Boscombe, Dorset. His family had deep roots in Langley, a village still during his lifetime but today a sprawling suburb of Slough. It's hard to imagine from the picture, but housing estates press against this rural churchyard from every side, and entering it is like stepping into another world - not back in time, so much, as into Nash's world of characterful old trees, dramatic walls and unlikely structures.

The pillared grave he shares with his wife Margaret is a monument both modern and classical beside the mellow red brick of the wall that surrounds his family's ancestral plot. He lies close to them, connected under the earth, but apart, and watched over by a bird that might be a falcon out of Ancient Egypt. Is this the peregrine of 'Landscape from a Dream', placed here to keep an eye on the artist? Nash liked to tell people that death resembled flowers drifting in the sky. He'd experienced a vision, when he was 21 and his mother had just died after a long and distressing mental illness, of a woman's face floating in the evening sky. Or that's what he said, at any rate, and that's what he painted.

Then he abandoned the human face and figure for woods and trees, often with a bird or a flock of birds flying around. He felt very strongly, throughout his life, the personality of trees, of things and of places. Certain places seized his imagination. At Dymchurch in Kent, in the early 1920s, he painted and sketched the sea wall and the sea over and over again. More often, though, he moved restlessly from place to place, looking, sketching, trying out ideas. He and Margaret were almost constantly on the move, sometimes together, sometimes apart, and often in the midst of crisis.

And, strange as it may seem, Nash was at his most productive when life was at its darkest - in the years following his mother's death, and following his father's, and at moments when his own life hung by a thread. Whatever the debates about modernity and Britishness, about abstraction, surrealism and the rest, Nash was motivated by an awareness of and terror of death. He spent his life coming to terms with mortality, in his strange paintings of tree stumps and ancient stones and heaps of felled wood, using the language of natural forms to explore the processes of which, like it or not, we are part.

Swan Song, 1928/9
Yet he had a wonderful sense of humour, which he retained through everything. You can see it in his private letters, which are full of wit and wordplay, and also I think in some of the paintings we talk about in such solemn terms. He disliked having his picture taken and almost invariably looks stiff and formal in photographs, whereas contemporaries noticed the smile on his lips and an eye that was constantly looking for wonders.

In an age of omnipresent images it's hard to accept that we cannot rely on visual evidence for Nash's character - or even appearance. Instead we have to dig out old books and read both his descriptions of the world and other people's descriptions of him. He loved Henry Purcell and American jazz, Botticelli and the cartoonists of the New Yorker; the American humourist James Thurber said of Nash, 'At the time there was no one in England, or anywhere else outside the US, who knew our comic art so well, or appreciated it so heartily.’

Event on the Downs, 1935
This isn't to say that Paul Nash wasn't a serious artist - he most certainly was. He produced some of his best paintings in the face of, or in response to death, and he served as a war artist in both World Wars, and between the wars he got embroiled in all the artistic debates of the age. Yet he was also charming and funny, a pretty good singer of old songs, a lover of life both cerebral and earthy.

Parkland near Nash's family home at Iver Heath


  1. Hi there
    This is a great blog. Have you ever come across any of Paul Nash's ceramics?

  2. thanks for your interest, Doug. I've never seen PN's ceramics, but some were sold at Harrods in Nov 1934, apparently. Article in Design for Today, Dec 34, p461...

  3. Thank you James. I ask because I think I may have found a piece. There was a small plate on ebay that I have just bought. The execution of the decoration is by somebody who clearly has a great understanding of composition and of mark making, which is what I was attracted to(I am a potter). It is signed P Nash. I'm waiting for it to arrive, then I can compare the signatures. The worst case scenario, I end up with a really nicely made piece of pottery. I'll have to take a trip to the library in Exeter and see if they have the Design for Today issue, thank you so much for that information. Very best wishes from a fellow Westcountry cider drinker

  4. My favourite artist, nice article.