Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Paul Nash: Landscape from a Dream

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream, 1936, Tate
The Nashes hoped to live permanently in Dorset, but medical opinion insisted that the climate of the Isle of Purbeck was bad for Paul’s health, and in 1936 they finally bought a house in Eldon Grove, Hampstead.

‘Although the furniture is in, the house is not yet habitable,’ Nash reported in the autumn. ‘The distracted painters and carpenters are still working doggedly on, and the blasted electricians pull up the floors under our very feet.’

In July he had participated in the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries in London, and now had two of the movement’s main British protagonists – Herbert Read and Roger Penrose – for neighbours. Eileen Agar’s work was also included, and she appeared herself in a photograph of the exhibitors alongside Salvador Dali, Read, Penrose, Paul Eluard and others, but not Nash. Coincidentally or not, his romance with Agar ended in July 1936, a break made more painful when she began a new affair with Eluard.

‘We break at the peak of our flight,’ Nash wrote to her, ‘Where we had climbed like two birds who make love in mid-air heedless of where they soar.’

Birds had always fascinated Nash, perhaps because he had experienced vivid dreams of flight as a child; in his work birds often make an appearance without taking centre stage, as the peregrine falcon - recognisable from its distinctive grey back and long, crossed-over wings – does here.

The peregrine is at home on this Dorset clifftop, with the dark, fossil-rich beach of Kimmeridge below. Nesting in a simple scrape, these birds hunt pigeons and other cliff-dwelling species, diving at speeds of up to 200mph and snatching prey from mid-air. Falconers have exploited their predatory talents for at least 3000 years but the peregrine has an equally ancient symbolic importance best personified by the falcon-headed Egyptian god Horus. Associated with the rising and setting of the sun, Horus is often shown with the moon as one eye and the sun for the other, suggesting the union of opposites: night and day, sunset and sunrise.

Not to say that Nash’s falcon necessarily refers to Horus, nor that the second falcon flying away into the sunset represents Eileen Agar. These are possible interpretations or sources of inspiration, no more. Nash constantly sought and borrowed ideas and images, from other artists, philosophers, historians and poets. He tended to scan books, pouncing on the phrase or theme that he was looking for. Perhaps he had hunted in this way through Ash Wednesday (1930), in which TS Eliot asks, ‘Why should the aged eagle spread its wings?’

Debilitated by asthma, Nash could have made this a sombre painting, but instead it is radiant, as his very last paintings would be. One can imagine the artist in his Hampstead home, with its mirrors and screens, dreaming of the Purbeck cliffs and remembered pleasures.

This is an excerpt from 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream' (Mainstone Press, 2011). I posted it because I'm giving a talk on Nash next week to the Somerset Art Gallery Trust. Info over here -->>


  1. Fascinating - many thanks.

    I can't quite understand why a coastal location would be worse for Nash than Hampstead.

  2. Thanks Steerforth - Nash's treatment by the medical profession wasn't always the best!