Monday, 7 November 2011

Artists at War: Paul Nash & Rex Whistler

Rex Whistler, Girl with Red Rose, 1935
The course of a life may be affected by many things, from external accidents to the internal workings of an individual character. Take Paul Nash (1889-1946) and Rex Whistler (1905-1944), two artists who went to war - with very different results.

We remember Nash not just as a war artist but as the quintessential painter of the world wars. The art collection of the Imperial War Museum is practically built around his vast canvases from the Great War, while 'Battle of Britain' is revered as one of the most striking paintings of the 1939-45 conflict. Nash's feeling for place and love of symbolism suited him for the job, but when he joined the Artists' Rifles in late 1914 there was no indication of what he would become.

Indeed, he spent more than two years in the south of England, training as an infantry officer - and meeting Edward Thomas in the process - before embarking for France with his regiment. Life in the trenches has come to dominate our collective memory of World War One, but the front lines were the equivalent of the coal face in a mine; a colossal effort went into manufacturing weapons and ammunition, training men and transporting everything and everyone to the right place at the right time.

The war, Nash wrote to his wife Margaret in March 1917, 'has become a habit so confirmed, so inevitable, it has its grip on the world just as surely as spring or summer.'

The battlefield seemed to Nash, when he finally arrived, a place of strange beauty:

Paul Nash, 1918
'Here in the back garden of the trenches it is amazingly beautiful - the mud is dried to a pinky colour and upon the parapet, and through sandbags even, the green grass pushes up and waves in the breeze... Nearly all the better trees have come out, and the birds sing all day in spite of shells and shrapnel...'

 This opinion was to change dramatically when he returned to Flanders as a war artist in the autumn, and witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele. That he had not fought in the battle was down to a mixture of luck and strength of will. In May, shortly before a Big Push, he had the good fortune to fall into a trench in the dark, injuring himself sufficiently to be invalided home. He had been sending sketches of the front lines home and now he seized the opportunity to persuade the authorities that he should be appointed Official War Artist and sent back to France in that capacity.

Nash had on his side a formidable weapon: the persuasive and determined Margaret. John Buchan, author of 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' and now Minister for Information, acquiesced, and within a few months Nash had risen from the ranks of minor British artists to become a household name. He also, incidentally, secured the release of his brother John from service on the front lines, and the two of them spent much of 1918 painting scenes of devastation in the green hills of the Chilterns, with the British and Canadian governments footing the bill.

Paul Nash, We are Making a New World, 1918
Two decades later he was once again appointed as an Official War Artist, and channeled his passionate hatred of Nazism into a series of memorable paintings. This time around, the selection and appointment of artists was organised by a War Artists Advisory Committee led by Kenneth Clark, the charismatic Director of the National Gallery. He believed that fine artists were an asset to the nation and should be kept from harm, and also that the work of such individualistic painters like Nash could serve as valuable propaganda.

Rex Whistler, dining room at Plas Newydd, 1936-7
However the appointment system was not perfect, and some of the omissions are mystifying. Why, for example, was Rex Whistler not chosen? According to his brother Laurence's biography, Clark approached artists whose work he knew and admired, and invited others to apply. Thomas Hennell was one painter who applied repeatedly, until he was eventually accepted. Whistler was not approached, and could not - out of pride, perhaps - apply.

Laurence wrote of his elder brother that he was 'not of this age', and indeed he does seem a strange, old-fashioned figure, painting murals for aristocratic clients as if he were living in the 18th century rather than the 20th. In 1936 he was commissioned by the Marquess of Anglesey to paint his dining room at Plas Newydd, and duly produced a glorious set of murals that mirror and transform the view of Snowdonia from the opposite windows.

Rex Whistler, Self Portrait, 1940
Yet this was hardly the time to be courting the aristocracy; by the mid-1930s many of the great houses of the land were falling into decay or being taken over by the National Trust (as Plas Newydd would be), as their owners struggled to pay death duties or meet soaring maintenance costs.

It is worth comparing Whistler's career with that of Eric Ravilious. Both became fascinated by mural painting as students, the former at the Slade and the latter at the Royal College of Art, and both launched their careers with murals. This was thanks in good measure to the legendary Henry Tonks (Paul Nash's former teacher), who chose Whistler to decorate the underground dining room at what is now Tate Britain. The success of these murals, which were finished in 1928 and can still be seen today, was the catalyst for the commissioning of the Morley College murals a year later; the success of these made the reputations of Ravilious and Edward Bawden.

The careers of the three artists had certain parallels; Whistler and Bawden both did work for Shell, while Ravilious and Whistler made designs for Wedgwood and all three were prodigious book illustrators. Socially, however, they moved in very different circles, and while Ravilious and Bawden chose to live simply in Essex, Whistler lived the high life, painting portraits of Cecil Beaton and the Sitwells and murals for stately homes.

When the war came, Bawden and Ravilious were among the first wave of artists chosen to record the conflict. By mid-1940 over 200 names had been considered, including Whistler's, which was apparently marked on the official list with a 'No'. His first inclination had been to volunteer for the army and, without a persuasive alternative, he now joined the Welsh Guards and began training as a tank commander.

Lieutenant Whistler (centre) & Cromwell tank crew 1944
Not that he gave up painting - far from it - and while stationed on Salisbury Plain he had the village blacksmith in Codford make him a unique piece of equipment, a metal box wrapped in a groundsheet, in which he kept paints, brushes and small canvases. This was fixed just behind the turret of his Cromwell tank when he rode in it from a landing craft onto the Normandy beach during the D-Day landings.

An artist at war, Whistler painted and sketched many of his fellow soldiers but only saw action once. With his platoon he was driving through the outskirts of Caen when his tank became caught up in wire, then came under machine gun fire. He jumped down and ran to the nearest tank to explain the situation and give orders, but as he started back to his own tank a mortar exploded, killing him instantly. If Kenneth Clark's ambition had been to protect artists from harm then he had, in this instance, failed.

'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream' is available now from the Mainstone Press and all good bookshops.


  1. Fascinating comparision. You've inspired me to dig out a book on Whistler, thank you!

  2. Thanks Murgatroyd - you could try 'The Laughter and the Urn' by Laurence Whistler. There's a lot on RW's colourful love life!

  3. Hello James. Good to see such a well-informed and interesting article by another NADFAS lecturer!
    However, I have read that Rex Whistler refused a safe job back in Blighty, because he was determined to do his bit by going to France as a soldier.
    If he was not offered a post as an official War Artist, was that because he had already told them he was not interested?

    Nicholas Reed

  4. Thanks Nicholas - from what I recall (from his brother's biography) Whistler was put on a list of possible War Artists but for some reason was never invited to be one. Laurence felt that he could have pushed himself forward but chose not to, and instead enlisted.