Thursday, 30 August 2012

Parade's End: TV with an Eye for Painting

Fans of BBC costume drama may be slightly perplexed by Parade's End, which depicts the world of the upper classes in the early 20th century as cold and carelessly brutal. The first episode also had decidedly odd moments which may well have put off some viewers, such as the scene involving a vicar with Tourette's, but I was captivated throughout by the cinematography, which seems to reflect the director's interest in British landscape painting of the (approximate) period.

Many of the rural scenes, and particularly the panoramic landscape shots, might have been inspired by watercolours painted by Ravilious in the 1930s. One lingering image shows fields sloping downhill, striped by plough or roller, like the fields in 'Mount Caburn'. Another features a pale but incandescent sun rising over misty hills, and another a train steaming across a landscape dominated by the white horse of Westbury.

This is followed by a shot of the interior of the train, in which the white horse appears framed by the window. Perhaps this is coincidence - after all, anyone who has travelled from London to the south-west via  Castle Cary will have seen the same image - but I can't imagine there's a Rav fan who didn't immediately think of 'Train Landscape'.

Eric Ravilious, Mount Caburn (DACS/Artist's estate)
Damn, now I'll have to read the book to see whether Ravilious was inspired to paint his picture by a passage in it! And I never managed to finish 'The Good Soldier', which is much shorter than the four-books-in-one that is 'Parade's End'. I'm sorry, but I found Ford Madox Ford painfully dull.

Anyway, painting was in my mind as I started watching the show for a reason. By chance I had come across an article on the website of Broadcast magazine, in which director Susanna White talked about how she put together the battlefield scenes which I suspect will dominate the remaining episodes. Anyone who tries to dramatize the Western Front is going to be aware of all the films and TV series that have gone before, and at the moment the success of 'War Horse' must weigh particularly heavy.

Ms White says as much in the Broadcast piece, 'Tom [Stoppard, screenwriter] and I had visited the set of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, trenches stretching as far as the eye could see, wide enough to gallop a horse down. How could we compete? We took the opposite approach and drew on documentary photographs to come up with narrow channels through mud walls, only just wide enough for two men to squeeze past each other.'

Paul Nash, Wire, 1918 (IWM)
I haven't seen the results yet, but the approach is absolutely right. The British trench system was famously inadequate compared to the concrete fortifications the Germans built, and in the front lines it was often little more than a shallow trough in which men cowered. The British top brass did not believe in fortification: they wanted the army to be mobile, constantly on the offensive, so trench-building was as minimal as possible. Read Edmund Blunden's harrowing but beautiful book 'Undertones of War' for more on this...

To create this non-'War Horse' vision of the Western Front, meanwhile, the director turned to another of my favourite artists:

Paul Nash, Landscape Hill 60, 1918 (IWM)

'We pared it right back – few duckboards, few sandbags, opting instead for organic curves of pure mud with bare shattered trees, like the spare landscapes in paintings by Paul Nash. One shot of the battlefield at night is a direct quote from a Nash painting, brought to life with moving flares and explosions.'

Is it unusual for a film-maker to seek inspiration in paintings? I don't know. But Nash was there, in the front lines, and he recorded what he saw in an extraordinary series of sketches and paintings. You can see a lot of them on the website of the Imperial War Museum, and they're as fresh and chilling as they were when he exhibited them in 1917/18. He made his first sketches as an infantry officer training with his men in preparation for the Battle of Passchendaele, and he was only able to exhibit them because he fell into a trench one night, broke a rib and was invalided home.

A great deal of cajoling then brought him a commission as a war artist, and he was able to return in the autumn to record the latter stages of the battle. These pictures, which he showed in the spring of 1918, were widely acknowledged as the most authentic vision of the life on the Western Front.

Paul Nash, Sunset: Ruin of the Hospice, Wytschaete, 1917 (IWM)
‘This is a beautiful and wonderful world, he seems to say,’ wrote a critic in the Times, ‘and see what man has made of it. See also how even man’s insanity cannot rob the tortured and battered earth of its beauty. In many of his drawings he has been struck by the strange, unaccountable beauty of the meaningless shapes of things so tortured and battered. They make an abstract music of their own, like the abstract music of form that the cubist tries to make for himself. Mr Nash has not had to make it; it was there for him to see; utter chaos, as of a world dead for a million years, frozen and without atmosphere, and yet beautiful to frightened human eyes…’

Herbert Read, a serving soldier who would become one of the most influential critics of his time, felt that Nash ‘could convey, as no other artist, the phantasmagoric atmosphere of No Man’s Land.’

I'm looking forward to seeing what Susanna White conjures from Nash's vision. Christopher Tietjens seems like the kind of honourable, sensitive man for whom the trenches will prove hellish but easier to cope with than Society.



  1. Excellent. We watched Parade's End and I pointed the White Horse out very excitedly to my son, and made him go and look again at my Train Landscape print on the stairs. "But I don't want to miss this" he said, quite rightly. I might be wrong, but I think in one scene there was a book by Herbert Read in the foreground.

  2. Thanks Peter, Looking forward to playing Spot the Nash in the next episode...

  3. I did not know about Nash falling into the trench, it is hard to comprehend that terrible time. My grandfather was a Sapper, he survived without a scratch despite being on the front line. He was a regular soldier and enlisted in 1913 so was there right from the beginning and stayed after the war ended. The damage however was mental trauma which robbed him of a normal life. The soldiers that did survive were reluctant to talk about their experiences but Nash's paintings speak louder than words. Those images fill me with great sadness.

  4. Susanna White17 September, 2012

    References to 20th century British art are indeed deliberately placed within Parades End from the techniques of the Vorticist photographers in the title sequence onwards. The titles, and the split frame images of Christopher and Sylvia on the train, are a reference to the photographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn, achieved by putting three mirrors in front of the lens, to fracture the image. The images on the train travelling to Rye are indeed a quote from Ravilious, and  the design of episode five draws not only on contemporary documentary photographs but on the paintings of Paul Nash. I was very interested in seeing how moving footage could bring paintings to life and in applying CGI techniques to art as a way of creating moving versions of paintings - hence the 'live' Nash view of battlefield in Episode Five (which was achieved through a mixture of time lapse layers and CGI) and the Nevinson painting, 'Searchlights over London' in Episode Four. The most dense use of painterly techniques is seen in Episode One, setting out the visual approach for the series - futurist train wheels, vorticist photography, graphic treatment of the English landscape (actually shot on the South Downs), quoting backwards and forwards from art sources just as Tom Stoppard quotes verbally from literary sources (Ford Madox Ford, Shakespeare, TS Eliot etc) in order to create a modernist visual approach.

    A big influence was Max Saunders' essay 'From Pre-Raphaelism to Impressionism' about the influence of the visual arts on Ford Madox Ford, published in the book Ford Madox Ford and Visual Culture.

  5. Thank you Susanna for these fascinating insights. I've been thoroughly enjoying the series since I posted this at the end of Episode One, and now I'm looking forward to seeing the last part and the 'live' Nash. Which painting will it be, I wonder?

    I love the idea of using CGI to create moving versions of paintings, and I think the choice of artists works well - it creates a distinctive aesthetic. I don't know Alvin Langdon Coburn, but will look him up.

  6. Susanna White17 September, 2012

    Thank you James - your lectures look great. Coincidentally my first documentary was about Eileen Agar, the surrealist painter, who was a close friend of Nash. I'll leave you to spot the painting.