Monday, 21 November 2011

Wrecked Planes & Magnolia Trees: Paul Nash in Oxford

Paul Nash, Pillar and Moon, 1940 - a view of Ascott Park, Stadhampton, nr Oxford - Tate
We tend to associate artists with places we know from their paintings: John Constable and Flatford Mill, Stanley Spencer and Cookham, Ravilious and the Downs...  It's the same with people. We build a picture of a life from letters, diaries and so on, but this tends to be distorted because the sources we rely on are unreliable. One correspondent destroys their letters, while the family of another refuses to share them. In another instance, a person who mattered a great deal to the artist never wrote or received a letter. Paul Nash never wrote or talked about his mother Caroline, who died when he was twenty after a decade of mental illness, and she barely gets a mention in the biographies. Do you think her life and death influenced his work? Would it influence yours?

Paul Nash's last home at 106 Banbury Road - note blue plaque
But I'm supposed to be talking about places, and in particular about Oxford, which features in Nash's life rather like an important friend he never got round to writing to. His first real connection to the city was through his wife Margaret, an extraordinary woman who, as tends to be the case with the wives of famous artists and writers, is known only as his devoted helper. Born in Jerusalem and raised during her early childhood in Cairo, Margaret Odeh studied modern history at St Hilda's College, Oxford. She graduated in 1908 and, on moving to London, became involved in the Suffrage movement; as part of her work she helped women who were trapped in prostitution, and she retained an open-minded attitude to social and sexual mores.

Aircraft dump, Cowley
Paul and Margaret met in 1913 and married shortly before Nash joined the army in the first months of the war, and they remained together despite constant upheavals and crises caused by his infidelities, health problems and their inability to settle. Their move to Hampstead in 1936 was supposed to be the last, but three years later, on the eve of a new war, Margaret insisted they leave London and move to Oxford; a ground floor flat on Banbury Road was to be Nash's last home.

By this time Nash was severely weakened by asthma, and unable to walk or stand for long periods. After the artistic camaraderie of pre-war Hampstead he now wrote that 'I wander in the College gardens or thread my way through the Oxford streets, jostled by the late British Expeditionary Force from France and the more recent force of female expeditionaries from Piccadilly and Leicester Square...'

Paul Nash, Totes Meer, 1941 - Tate - can you spot the owl?
It is fair to say that he wasn't desperately happy in the suburbs of Oxford, but I think that being restricted in his movements focused his mind, and in the last few years of his life he produced some memorable paintings. 'Battle of Britain' was painted in Oxford, as were series of pictures devoted to crashed aircraft (German) and flying aircraft (British). A short drive took him to Cowley, where damaged planes from around the country were brought for salvage - a scene which looked to him suddenly 'like a great inundating Sea'. This fantasy he worked into 'Totes Meer', a painting I happened to see last week at Tate Britain, hanging in the museum's Romantics exhibition.

Paul Nash - a natty dresser
Nash tended to downplay his extensive borrowing from other artists, but he was undoubtedly something of a magpie, and in this painting combined the English pastoral of Samuel Palmer, the Romantic vision of 19th century German painter Casper David Friedrich, and his own studies of the Dymchurch coast to create one of the Second World War's more memorable images.

But the war did not preoccupy him directly for long. In 1942 he was released from government employment and left to his own devices. Knowing that he hadn't long to live, his mood swung between black despair and a kind of elation. His 'ivory basement', as he called his flat, had a garden surrounded by a red brick wall, and here he grew the sunflowers which feature so strongly in his final paintings. Here too I imagine grew the magnolia tree, that suburban staple, which provided the blossom for 'Flight of the Magnolia'.

Not that he was entirely trapped in his 'subub'. He travelled to Gloucestershire now and again, took a tour around Dorset with his old friend Lance Sieveking, and discovered at Boars Hill, just outside Oxford, the view that was to preoccupy him more than any since Dymchurch twenty years before...

Paul Nash, Flight of the Magnolia, 1944 - Tate

To be continued.


  1. I'm assuming they didn't have any children? Just left wondering what kind of offspring two quite remarkable people like this would produce. Probably very settled, average sorts.

  2. That's a very interesting point - they didn't have children, nor is there any suggestion that they wanted to have them. John Nash (Paul's brother) and his wife Christine had a boy who died in awful circumstances, by falling out of their car.

    I don't know whether their sister, Barbara, had any.

    I suspect that any offspring of Paul and Margaret would have been, let us say, mildly eccentric...

    1. James, Margaret Nash had a miscarriage, and they didn't have any other child after that (for that reason).

  3. Margaret was in the vanguard of Oxford women - it wasn't until 1920 that women were allowed to be full members of the university and take proper degrees.

    Coincidentally, I lived a few doors away from that Banbury Road house when I was in my final undergraduate year. I'd no idea Nash lived there - maybe, back in the 1970s, there was no blue plaque. Or, equally likely, there was one but I just didn't notice it.

  4. Margaret was quite a character, Philip - she more than anyone got Paul appointed a war artist in 1917. Not a woman who took no for an answer!

    Did I notice anything as an undergrad? Hmmm. No.

  5. James, I've been fascinated to learn about Margaret. Would you recommend any further reading I could do to learn more?

  6. The only published source, so far as I know, is Paul Nash's autobiography 'Outline', which has some wonderful material on Margaret as a young woman. It's still in print and well worth buying

  7. James I wonder if you could help me? I was President of the JCR in St Hilda's College, Oxford in June 1958 and we were offered an exhibition of Paul Nash paintings which I went, with a friend, to collect from a house in Oxford and which were displayed for some time in our Junior Common Room. I cant remember whom it was we collected them from , but it may well have been from his widow Margaret Odeh who presumably was still living in Banbury Road at that time (though I cant recall meeting her). Do you think this could have been the case? I remember being amazed by the stark war paintings ,mainly black and white in my memory, and presumably works which hadn't reached fame (or the sale room) by then. None of us undergraduates at the time realised what a well known artist he was... anything you could throw light on would be helpful , Pam

  8. Thanks Pam - I'll reply by email...