Tuesday, 25 October 2011

'Paul Nash in Pictures': Wood on the Downs

Paul Nash, Wood on the Downs, 1930 (Aberdeen Art Gallery)

A clump of beeches rises in a sculpted wave over hills that roll and tumble like the sea. Nash loved the ancient uplands, and his paintings of Iron Age hillforts, trackways and sacred sites span a region from the Dorset coast to the northern tip of the Chilterns. It was during a 1924 visit to Ivinghoe Beacon, that great hump of chalk overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury, that he first discovered this wood, describing it as ‘an enchanted place in the hills girdled by wild beech woods, dense and lonely places where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dryad.’
     Today the Ridgeway and Icknield Way paths meet nearby, making this a landmark for long distance ramblers and a destination for daytrippers, but even in the 1920s people were visiting the hills and woods in increasing numbers. A national preoccupation with prehistory had been growing since the Victorian era and, in the aftermath of the Great War, books like H. J. Massingham’s Downland Man (1926) encouraged readers to explore the landscape of the ancient past. As aerial photography offered a new perspective on earthworks and monuments, the rise of motor transport turned sites like Ivinghoe Beacon into tourist attractions.
     ‘Millions of motorists must have passed the place,’ Nash noted wryly when he described this painting, adding ‘It is on the main road on the top of the hill. I have wanted to do something about it for years.’
     The opportunity came in the last month of his annus horribilis [1929], when Jack offered (or was persuaded) to drive him.
     ‘It was a lovely day for the drive,’ Nash remarked, ‘But devilish cold for drawing when we got to the hills…. The woods in the hollow below were crowded with wild pigeons which alternately sailed in the clouds over the tops of the trees or settled in the branches where they sat so thick the woods looked like monstrous orchards bursting into bloom.’
     He sketched directly onto canvas, noting the colours on a separate drawing, then painted the oil in his studio to his own design. One critic found the pleasure to be found in the picture ‘austere’, adding ‘It is a sort of higher mathematics of painting that Mr Nash pursues.’
     We can imagine the artist chuckling over this remark. As a boy he had been set for a career in the Royal Navy, but failed to pass the necessary entrance exams. There were plans to make him an architect, or set him to work in a bank, but the same weakness held him back:
     ‘Although I appeared to possess a good average intelligence,’ he acknowledged. ‘I was extremely deficient in mathematical calculation… Actually I was capable of quite complicated methods of computation to prove my sums. But the answers were fantastically wrong… I have seen mathematical teachers reduced to a sort of awe by my imbecility.’
     Awe of a very different kind is inspired by this painting. Simultaneously abstract, architectural and descriptive, it gives perfect expression to Nash's extraordinary sense of place.

This is an excerpt from 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream', which will be available in early November from the Mainstone Press. Join us for the official launch at Henry Sotheran's bookshop in Piccadilly, on November 15th (more details here).


  1. This is my favorite painting of his and for many years I thought this could have been a Wiltshire landscape or possibly somewhere in Sussex. I've got photographs of the end of a Ridgeway walk and now I am comparing them like for like I've been enlightened. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for your comment - I think it's worth drawing attention to the location of 'Wood on the Downs', and other Nash paintings, simply because he was fascinated and inspired by particular places, rather than landscape in general. Although he reworked natural forms in his compositions, the place itself was the catalyst.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post about one of my favourite paintings. Higher mathematics indeed!

  4. Thanks, Steerforth - one of the pleasures of researching Nash has been discovering the extraordinary things written about him by critics who lacked the kind of theoretical language available to today's commentators. What this painting has to do with maths I just don't know...

  5. Is the original on public display anywhere or is it privately owned? I would love to see it 'in real life'
    What size is the painting?

    1. It's at Aberdeen Art Gallery 72 x 92cm - thanks

  6. Hello James
    I am interested in Wood on the Downs 1930, since I am creating a timeline of events at Ashridge.
    May I use your narrative to describe the picture? (credits to you)
    Can you say where the artist was standing? I estimate it to be near Hog Hall at SP979157.
    I may be wrong!
    Best regards
    John Trimmer

  7. Hi John, feel free to use my narrative with credit (and preferably a link) - not sure where Nash was standing... Thanks, James

    1. Thanks for that James.
      If you would like a preview of the site go to www.ashridgetimeline.co.uk/timeline.html and look for 1930. The piles of chalk were for liming the heavy clay topsoil.
      As an aside , Paul's painting of Whiteleaf Cross caught my attention. I have now established the origins of the crosses which were undoubtedly cut and maintained by the Welsh cattle drovers, as waymark signs. There is another similar cross at Bledlow across the valley.
      see www.llundainfach.co.uk

      John Trimmer

    2. Thanks John - how fascinating about the white crosses, I'll have to look into it further...

    3. Mike Bovingdon22 November, 2014

      I come from the Chilterns – now fashionably known as "Midsommer County". I also paint, and seek that higher logic inside: the essence, if you will. But Nash has already been this way.

      It was his gift to do this, and I see why the critic mentions mathematics as an image. Symbolic description of an underlying form means austerity – the clearing away of unhelpful detail and any fluffiness, until you're down to the equations that describe it all. It makes sense to me.

      Exactly where Nash set up his easel is interesting but matters less than the essence of the Chiltern Beechwoods. I think he gets it just right: spirit of place as you say.

      The delineation of Wessex “from the Dorset coast to the northern tip of the Chilterns” is perceptive. My father grew up partly near Ivinghoe, and my mother near Lyme Regis – opposite ends of something with an established character of its own. In Louis MacNeice's poem “Wessex Guidebook”, I find a similar resonance: a landscape of lost flints and overgrown barracks and iron age earthworks.

      It's also a dangerous landscape (like Ted Hughes' Elmet), with many tribes the Romans found troublesome. But in the end, the landscape has survived them all. I sometimes think that London money wants to build on Wessex and the Chilterns out of fear of this uncompromising quality, rather in the way that some folks dislike cats because they can see and prosper in the dark, where we do not.

      Nash' paintings hold all this ancient meaning beautifully. As to whether he will be seen as a greater painter than say, Hockney, I shall not live long enough to see a consensus! Let's just enjoy.

  8. I have just bought a print of Wood on the Downs. I'm sure its a wood on the crest of Rag Bottom west of Ditchling Beacon on the South Downs. The picture has the same feel, for me anyway, so thats where it is for me! A magical place.

  9. Me too! I bought it on Monday because I thought it was that spot by Ditchling Beacon. Walking this spring I loitered there for a while. It was eerie and you felt like you had to whisper.

    Interesting note about the piles of chalk too.

    Thanks, Fi