‘I find no poet who has sprung since quite so good as dear old Thomas. He seems to give us something peculiar and rare, something perfectly distinguished and necessary to English poetry.’ Paul Nash, 1919

All around Hare Hall the nightingales were singing. May had turned warm and in the lengthening evenings soldiers left their camp in the grounds of the Palladian mansion and went walking across the Essex countryside. For Corporal Edward Thomas, these brief forays into the local country were a tantalizing reminder of peacetime freedom and of the twenty years he had spent wandering southern England and Wales. Thomas now felt himself a captive, prevented by the responsibilities of his rank from leaving camp for more than a few hours, but life was not all bad. Having refused for years to countenance teaching as a profession he was enjoying the role of map-reading instructor, while he continued to write poetry in secret, disguising his verses as prose.

Edward Thomas by John Wheatley (NPG)
Paul Nash 1918 (Tate)
Unexpectedly, the spring of 1916 had brought a couple of like-minded men to teach at Hare Hall. John Wheatley, a Welsh artist, made an etching of Thomas in his new Corporal’s stripes, smoking his old clay pipe. Wheatley also joined him on his evening walks, as did a young artist named Paul Nash. The latter was, Thomas noted, ‘wonderful at finding birds’ nests.’ This was praise indeed from a man who valued country skills of any kind highly, but perhaps it also shows his relief in finding these companions as his regiment, the Artists’ Rifles, had not so far lived up to its name and its grand associations. Founded in 1860 as a volunteer corps pledged to repel the invasion threatened by Napoleon III of France, the regiment had at first consisted entirely of painters, poets, sculptors, musicians and the like; John Everett Millais, George Frederick Watts, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were early recruits.
‘Such splendid beards,’ commented the literary magazine Once a Week, ‘worthy of Titian, and such fine faces!’ The proportion of artists rapidly declined, however, until half a century  later Edward Thomas found himself surrounded by doctors, lawyers and public school men of one kind and another, inhabitants of the sprawling London suburbs he detested. So reticent was Thomas about his literary achievements and ambitions that Wilfred Owen went through training at Hare Hall without discovering that his map-reading instructor was the foremost critic of poetry in Britain, and a fellow war poet.

If this failure to connect has literature professors tearing their hair out, we shouldn’t imagine that Nash and Thomas enjoyed much more than a genial camaraderie. In some ways the two men were very different. Dear old Thomas, as Nash would later refer to him, was a tall and imposing countryman of forthright views, the son of an English mother and a Welsh father who never forgave him for spurning a career in the civil service. Instead Thomas had graduated from Oxford University in 1900 already married and with a son of his own, and determined to pursue his vocation as a writer. His life thereafter was a constant struggle to make ends meet, and the more reviews, articles and books he wrote, the unhappier he became. Despair drove him on occasion to contemplate suicide but he rallied each time and each time embarked on a fresh project with renewed vigour.

Often a project meant a journey, for Thomas was known during his lifetime not as a poet but as a critic who wrote eccentric, slightly awkward travel books. There are delights in each of his books of English and Welsh wanderings, but so intent was he on writing the required number of words as quickly as possible that he often larded the text with repetitive descriptions and lengthy quotes from minor poets. A rather misanthropic vision of London and its people can’t have helped his cause either, but his chief obstacle to success lay in writing for a readership that didn’t really exist yet. His politically engaged, acerbic, wry style would appeal more to the generations who came after him than to his own.

Like his other books, The South Country enjoyed modest success in 1909, but had become seminal reading twenty years later. In it, Thomas evokes the woods and roads, fields and villages of the South Downs, presenting us with a landscape at once ancient and contemporary. Against the timeless (and to Edwardian eyes, eternal) cycles of nature, he sets the dubious progress of human history. We see London suburbs devouring farmland and share the plight of a suburban man whose weekday office is so overshadowed by buildings that it seems to lie at the bottom of a deep pit. This man escapes as often as he can to labour in the fields, as Thomas himself travelled restlessly around the country in his rumpled tweeds, open to the lure of path, lane or Downland track.

‘The long white roads are a temptation,’ he wrote. ‘What quests they propose! They take us away to the thin air of the future or to the underworld of the past.’

As a boy Thomas had met a tramp on a riverbank and listened avidly to his tales, and ever after remained obsessed with wandering and wanderers. The roving nature writer Richard Jefferies was one of his heroes, while another was peripatetic author George Borrow, whose 1851 novel Lavengro offers a vision of England in which gypsies and other rootless souls roam country lanes and byways, free from the constraints of city life and Victorian morality. Money and status are of no concern to the narrator and chief protagonist, whose great achievement, by the end of the book, is to become a tinker; instead of marriage, the story ends with him living in a leafy dingle with a woman called Isopel, in a relationship that is never – and, we imagine, never will be – defined.

Underappreciated by Victorian readers, Lavengro began in the next century to acquire a cult following among undergraduates and office workers disillusioned with city life; by 1906, the Oxford University Press and Everyman’s Library had issued mass market editions and the cult of the wanderer was firmly established. Borrow was by this time long dead, but Edwardian urbanites who dreamt of the roving life found a new literary hero in William Henry Davies, a one-legged Welsh traveller and poet who in 1908 published The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp.

Even today the book makes eye-opening reading, with its cast of lowlifes and prostitutes, and it was only published after its author found a champion in Thomas himself. Davies was uncouth, wily and not averse to shocking sensitive literary types, but at the same time he was an authentic wild rover, an untutored author and poet who wrote from life. Thomas supported him professionally and financially, despite his own straitened circumstances, and on one occasion commissioned a local wheelwright to replace his wooden leg. To save Davies’ blushes, the order was marked ‘Curiosity cricket bat’.

Although the Super-Tramp had lost his foot trying to sneak a ride on an American train, his readers were keen to escape the railway system and explore the roads of Britain; the modern bicycle, fitted with the recently invented pneumatic tyres, made this possible. By 1910 there was so much interest in cycling that the Suffolk market town of Sudbury, birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough, was able to support nine bike shops including one, established in 1898 by HC Twitchett, that had an antique penny farthing on the roof. Evidently keeping up with the times, Twitchett’s shop also advertised itself as a Motor Garage offering Petrol and Repairs, but for now the bicycle held sway and at weekends Londoners explored the Home Counties in their thousands, visiting beauty spots, country inns and ancient monuments.

Thomas himself became a keen cyclist, setting off in March 1913 on a high-speed pilgrimage from London to Somerset and Coleridge’s former home in the Quantock Hills, and writing up his journey in the occasionally dazzling In Pursuit of Spring.

Artists too were drawn to life on the road; the Welsh painter Augustus John impressed Thomas ‘with his long red beard, ear-rings, jersey check-suit and standing six foot high so that a cabman was once too nervous to drive him’. A draughtsman of supreme talent, John constantly sought new inspiration and was fascinated by the adventurous, rootless lives of circus performers and gypsies. In the summer of 1909 he caused scandal in Cambridge when he parked his bright blue gypsy caravan on the outskirts of town and held court there with two women and ten naked children. Two years later he was living among gypsies in the mountains of north Wales alongside fellow artist James Dickson Innes, painting the mountain of Arenig Fawr in vibrant colours; the pair returned bearded and cloaked and sporting old-fashioned broad-brimmed hats to show their work in London galleries.

In striking contrast to these flamboyant oils, Paul Nash made a small drawing – one of his earliest – that was essentially an illustration to the pages of Borrow. At the time he was fascinated by Lavengro, noting later that ‘more than ever the adventures of the Heath and the open road became my romantic food.’ Attracted particularly to the vision of Lavengro and Isopel in the dingle, Nash sought out the most gypsyish models available in Chelsea, one of whom, Rupert Lee, was known as the Man from Mexico on account of his broad-brimmed hat and riding trousers, and preceded to draw them against the background of a dingle he had invented - with some difficulty, he admitted later, being ‘not well acquainted with dingles’.

Paul Nash, Lavengro & Isopel in the Dingle, 1911/12 (Tate)
The resulting picture has suggestions of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, and like Nash’s other drawings in pen and ink with bluish-grey washes, it was altogether different from the work of John and Innes and the other members of the dominant Camden Town Group. Led by Walter Sickert, this loose collection of seventeen artists tended to produce heavily textured, colourful oil paintings of figures, urban interiors and scenes of ordinary life – parks and city squares, or suburban streets. Like the styles they adopted, such subjects showed the Londoners’ admiration for the equally diverse group of European painters – Van Gogh and Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse – whom art guru Roger Fry had brought together for the first time in his infamous 1910 exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’. Virginia Woolf later claimed that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’, but Nash was unmoved by the exhibition students at the Slade School of Fine Art were exhorted not to visit. Later he would wrestle with the problem of Going Modern and Being British, but for now he was evolving in a different direction.

Anyone who did not know Paul Nash well would have been forgiven for thinking his life so far had been easy. His father, William Harry Nash, was an amiable barrister from an old Buckinghamshire farming family, and Paul was born in 1889 into a comfortable middle class life. Initially he and his younger brother and sister, John and Barbara, were raised in Kensington, London, where they inhabited a top floor nursery and saw their mother Caroline for an hour in the evening. But Caroline, the daughter of a naval officer, suffered from anxiety that became progressively more acute, and when Paul was about twelve his father acted on medical advice and moved them all to the Buckinghamshire village of Iver Heath, where a six-bedroom house had been built on a quiet lane. Unfortunately this did not help Caroline Nash, whose mental condition deteriorated rapidly and relentlessly. To pay for her care the rest of the family often had to move elsewhere and rent out the house, and after a decade of constant distress she died, in 1910, at the age of forty-nine.

Throughout his teenage years Paul helped his father and protected his brother and sister from the worst, and the family remained close ever after. With so much upheaval in his life, it is not surprising that Nash did not shine at school. Destined for a career in the navy he was deterred by being, as he later put it, ‘extremely deficient at mathematical calculation.’ ‘Actually,’ he explained in his autobiography, Outline, ‘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 kind of awe by my imbecility.’

At a naval crammer the staff attempted to beat maths into him, but he failed the naval entrance exams nevertheless and quit St Paul’s – the same school Edward Thomas had left with such great expectations – with no prospects. Architecture was suggested as a career, but that required a grasp of maths, and then a bank – a bank! Nash began to feel he was ‘the victim of a ridiculous conspiracy which, because I was bad at figures, maliciously committed me to any calling wherein figures played an essential part.’ Instead, the eighteen year old proposed a career as an illustrator and to this his father rather surprisingly acquiesced.

William Blake Richmond, The Crown of Peace
Elliott & Fry, WB Richmond, 1910

Nash enrolled at Bolt Court, a school for commercial artists on Fleet Street, and it was there that he began to earn his family nickname of Lucky Paul; the school held a monthly sketch-club exhibition that was judged by a well known artist or designer, and when the portraitist William Rothenstein came along he gave Nash’s picture top marks and asked to see more work. With Joseph Conrad, HG Wells and Augustus John among his close friends Rothenstein’s influence in London art circles was considerable, and he now became Nash’s second supporter.

The first was Gordon Bottomley, an equally influential poet and creator of verse dramas whom Nash wooed in an unusual way. A neighbour at Iver Heath had lent the young man a copy of a book by Bottomley that the author, a giant of a man laid low by tuberculosis and confined to his Cumberland home, had lent them. Nash was so taken with the verses that he drew illustrations in the book itself and, rather than take offence, Bottomley wrote to say how much he liked the pictures. Their subsequent correspondence was to last until Nash’s death, and the author became another valuable ally.

Through his expanding connections Nash made enough money to pay the fees at the Slade and he spent a year in 1910/11 under the tutelage of the legendary Henry Tonks. Although he later described the venerable institution as ‘a typical English Public School seen in a nightmare’ Nash made lasting friendships with Ben Nicholson and others. However he learnt more from private lessons with Sir William Blake Richmond, a bearded old patriarch who was the godson of William Blake. He had, Nash later recollected, ‘a booming Blake-like voice, but inadequate control of the letter R. Nearly all our interviews ended the same way,’ Nash recalled, ‘“Wemember, my boy, drwawing, drwawing, drwawing, ALWAYS drwawing.”’

Sir William also advised his young protégé to stop working from his imagination, as he had previously done, and to focus instead on nature, and this Nash did. The house at Iver Heath had a morning-room where he and his father spent their time, with windows that gave onto a garden planted with flowering shrubs and trees but otherwise uncultivated. So many birds came in from the neighbouring fields that the family called this the Bird Garden, but for Nash the rough meadow, bounded by trees and shrubs, became something more.

‘It was undoubtedly the first place which expressed for me,’ he explained later, ‘something more than its natural features seemed to contain, something which the ancients spoke of as genius loci – the spirit of a place.’

There was something in the design of the garden, and in the way light played across it, that gave it at certain times a beauty that seemed to Nash something more than natural beauty, something mysterious or unreal. He would devote the best part of his life to the exploration of this phenomenon, seeking out places in which he felt this spirit strongly and endeavouring to capture it on canvas or paper.

Paul Nash, Barbara in the Garden, 1913/14 (Tate)
I wondered, after reading these passages in Nash’s autobiography, what it was that made this particular place so extraordinary, and so, more or less a hundred years after he first sketched the Bird Garden I set off to see the place for myself. Preferring to follow a map and my instincts rather than 21st century gadgetry I drove first to Langley, where Paul Nash’s grave stands next to those of his ancestors in a country churchyard surrounded by miles of suburban sprawl and then, slightly daunted by the transformation wrought by decades of development, headed for Iver Heath. Unable to gain my bearings I first drove right through the village to the gleaming gates of Pinewood Studios, but turned round and began exploring.

At first it was disappointing. The elms, which Nash had drawn almost as figures in a landscape, were long gone, with only the occasional skeletal trunk remaining, and the village itself had become one of those well-to-do dormitories that encircle London, complete with private roads and security gates. It took a while to find Wood Lane, but at last here it was, and here too the Nashes’ old house, a modest villa still surrounded by fields. It was easy to spot the Bird Garden, the shrubs now fully grown, and in the neighbouring fields one could imagine one of the artist’s solitary wanderers strolling towards a line of woods. The sense of place, though, eluded me, and I felt rather let down as I climbed back into the car and pulled away.

Then I spotted the entrance to a lane I hadn’t yet explored and, after waiting for a gap in the fast-moving traffic, turned down it. As I pottered along the quiet road, with ancient beeches and oaks on either side and beyond them rough pasture, I felt a curious sense of familiarity. I stopped the car and got out. It was late afternoon in summer and the lane led quietly away beneath the overhanging branches, brightly lit here and there by the sun but otherwise shadowed. My skin prickled. Nash had walked here in this lane, and perhaps set his easel up here, a century before. I went on and found an orchard and a park with immense solitary trees and, in a moment of wonderful incongruity, an old wooden boat, clinker-built and at least fifteen feet from stem to stern, blocking the entrance to a field in place of a gate.

Inspired by this landscape of meadows and woods, Nash produced a batch of drawings that impressed Sir William. On seeing the second batch a month later he was convinced. ‘”I knew it,” he exclaimed in a rousing bellow and, striking his thigh with a sharp report, “I thought I was right, but I feared it might be some phantasmagorrwia of the brrwain!”’

With this praise ringing in his ears, Nash secured himself a small one-man show at Rothenstein’s prestigious Carfax Gallery. The following year, 1913, Paul and John – now also an artist – held a successful joint exhibition at a small gallery in South Kensington, in which Paul showed drawings of Wittenham Clumps, a distinctive pair of hills near Didcot in Oxfordshire. Roger Fry approved, although Paul instinctively mistrusted him, and Spencer Gore picked half a dozen pictures by each brother for an exhibition of English Post-Impressionists and Cubists in Brighton. There was a certain irony in this, given the brothers’ lack of enthusiasm for current trends, but it showed that they had arrived, a fact confirmed by an invitation to meet Sir Edward ‘Eddie’ Marsh, Winston Churchill’s Private Secretary and an influential collector.

Having been teased at the Slade for his ordinary appearance, Paul now adopted a broad-brimmed hat and long tweed cloak, with a long-stemmed cherrywood pipe and a black ebony stick to enhance the effect. He was undoubtedly ‘an artist of some sort’.

When the war came, Paul Nash hesitated for a month then went along to the Euston Road headquarters of the Artists’ Rifles to enlist. War did not interest him, indeed violence of any kind horrified him, but he felt compelled to volunteer for home service at least. Future BBC producer Lance Sieveking met Private Nash when he too joined up and the pair were drilling in Russell Square; Sieveking was immediately struck by the twenty-four year old’s air of quiet assurance, his neatness and composure. The young artist was ‘a superlatively elegant dandy… spruce and neat down to the last detail. His black hair was brushed back off his forehead in a thick gleaming mass, and he wore short, neat side-whiskers. His jacket was… beautifully cut. His collar was very low and he wore an enormous tie neatly knotted.’

The war was supposed to be over by Christmas. Almost two years later the build-up to the Battle of the Somme had begun and Paul Nash was set to quit teaching and train as an officer. In uniform he was as dapper as ever, while the taller Thomas wore his uniform like his old shapeless tweeds. They must have made an incongruous pair as they walked in the Essex lanes to the pub, each perhaps unaware that the other shared his own profound sensitivity to the landscape.

As the day grew closer when Nash and Wheatley would leave, bound for France, Thomas wrestled privately with his doubts and produced an exquisite poem that begins with a pastoral vision:

As the team’s head brass flashed out on the turn, 
Two lovers disappeared into the wood. 

The ploughman, working his way up and down the field, pauses every ten minutes on the turn to chat with the poet, who is sitting on the branch of an elm felled by a blizzard, and the subject of the war comes up.

‘Have you been out?’ the ploughman asks. 
‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to perhaps?’ 
‘If I could only come back again, I should. 
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so, 
I should want nothing more… 
Have many gone From here?’ 
‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost?’ ‘Yes: a good few.

Not long after, Thomas followed the example of his friends and volunteered for France, and in February 1917 Nash and Thomas embarked separately for Le Havre, the former to join the 15th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant, and the latter to fill the same rank with the Royal Garrison Artillery.

Nash travelled on to Rouen and by slow degrees approached the Front, keenly aware of the countryside around him. ‘Everywhere are old farms, rambling and untidy,’ he wrote in a letter home, ‘some of course ruined and deserted, all have red or yellow or green roofs and on a sunny day they look fine. The willows are orange, the poplars carmine with buds, the streams gleam brightest blue and flights of pigeons go wheeling about the field. Mixed up with all this normal beauty of nature you see the strange beauty of war. Trudging along the road you become gradually aware of a humming in the air, a sound rising and falling in the wind. You look up and after a second’s search you can see a gleaming shaft in the blue like a burnished silver dart, another and then another…’

His senses alive to this extraordinary new place, Nash described ‘the back garden of the trenches’ as ‘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, while clots of bright dandelions, clover, thistles and twenty other plants flourish luxuriantly, brilliant growth of bright green against the pink earth.’

Not far away, outside Arras, Edward Thomas also noted the incongruity of spring unfolding amid the destruction. On March 18th he wrote in his diary, ‘Linnets and chaffinches sing in waste trenched ground with trees and water tanks between us and Arras. Magpies over No Man’s Land in pairs.’ Another day he watched a French farmer ploughing a field just behind the lines. Perhaps he thought of the ploughman in his poem as the farmer drove his team right up to a crest that was in full view of the German gunners at Beaurains, and turned slowly around, and moved slowly away again.

Paul Nash, Indians in Belgium, 1917 (Imperial War Museum)
Thomas keenly felt the brutal contrast between their rural surroundings – so similar to those they had left behind in England - and the industrial-scale destruction, but Nash seemed captivated by the whole picture. He hated the war as any sane person did but was fascinated by the scene, and by the middle of April he had made twenty sketches.

Paul Nash, Ruined Country, 1917 (Imperial War Museum)
‘Imagine a wide landscape flat and scantily wooded and what trees remain blasted and torn, naked and scarred and riddled,’ he wrote excitedly. ‘The ground for miles around furrowed into trenches, pitted with yawning holes in which the water lies still and cold or heaped with mounds of earth, tangles of rusty wire, tin plates, stakes, sandbags and all the refuse of war... In the midst of this strange country… men are living in their narrow ditches.’

Nash wrote this on Good Friday, 6 April 1917, as, fifty miles to the south, Thomas noted ‘infantry with yellow patches behind marching soaked up to line’. The Battle of Arras was about to begin, and on Easter Monday the British guns, including Thomas’s battery, laid down a ferocious barrage. In the aftermath, as the infantry attack got under way, he was knocked down by the blast from an enemy shell, and killed instantly.

‘Thomas is dead…’ wrote Nash some weeks later, as preparations for the year’s major offensive intensified. ‘I brood on it dully.’

The 15th Hampshires were to take a lead in the summer campaign, attacking the German stronghold at Messines Ridge, and in the build-up Nash trained with his men, preparing for the moment when it would be their turn to go over the top. Proud of his company and full of compassion for the plight of the ‘Poor little lonely creatures in this great waste’, Nash was ready to face death. But a week before the attack, on the 25th May, fortune came to his aid when he fell into a trench in the dark and broke a rib. Within days he was admitted to the Swedish War Hospital in London, then he won permission to work on his drawings, and by the end of June twenty were hanging in the Goupil Galleries, where they were well received.

Now began a race against time. As soon as he recuperated he was sent back to his regiment, and by August was once again in Gosport awaiting transport to France. He wanted to go back, there was no question about it, but as an official war artist. Time was not on his side, but Eddie Marsh and Rothenstein were. And Nash had a formidable weapon at his disposal, a woman before whom men of high office quailed: his wife Margaret.

Bassano Ltd, Margaret Nash, 1922 (National Portrait Gallery)
Born in Jerusalem where her father was chaplain to the Anglican bishop, Margaret Odeh (‘Bunty’ to her friends) had a degree from St Hilda’s, Oxford, and a history of political campaigning as a suffragette and then as a supporter of women seeking to escape prostitution. When she and Paul married in December 1914, Lance Sieveking observed that, ‘as well as their relations and close friends, a large number of ladies were present in the church who were unmistakably tarts from Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. Judging from the glances and whispering, they evidently doted on Bunty…’

Open-minded, passionate and prone to eccentric behaviour – she was clairvoyant, among other things – Margaret Nash was to endure a great deal as Paul’s wife but remained his champion long after his death. Now she came to his aid, bearding officials and cajoling dignitaries. John Buchan, the novelist and Director of Information, preferred the work of more traditional draughtsmen like Muirhead Bone, the first official war artist, but such was the fuss being made on Nash’s behalf that he acquiesced, and in the autumn Paul was seconded to the Department of Information. He returned to France in November with a car and driver, and a batman who was a professional valet and cook, although he did not keep such luxuries for long.

‘My excellent chauffeur is leaving,’ he wrote, ‘and my chef has been precipitated into the windscreen and messed up his mouth. With true spirit and the nice feeling of a faithful servant he only said, “How fortunate it wasn’t you, sir!”’

This jaunty tone evaporated quickly as Nash travelled to the front lines and viewed the wastes of Passchendaele - ‘one huge grave, and cast up on it the poor dead. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless.’

Landscape of Passchendaele (Library & Archives Canada)

Paul Nash, Wire, 1918 (Imperial War Museum)
So much worse for Nash was the thought that his brother was somewhere in the midst of these miles of stinking mud. The letters landing on Eddie Marsh’s desk now asked, ‘Can you by any fair or foul means help to get Jack home for a commission? It’s… a damned shame if nothing can be done to extricate him from a position where he is in utmost danger.’

Unlike Paul and Edward Thomas he had not received a commission in England and was instead serving as a Corporal with the Artists’ Rifles. John might have considered this rather typical for, like his good friend Gilbert Spencer, he was continually overshadowed by his older brother. While Paul was nursing his broken rib and preparing his first sketches for exhibition, John was training for battle. He wrote to his fiancé, artist and former Slade student Christine Kuhlenthal, ‘On Saturday night at ten o’clock I wonder what you were doing? I was standing on the step with my gun and fixed bayonet by my side peering over 800 yards of tangled wire and grass trying to see if Fritz was coming across to pay us a visit while round about fell, flew, and whistled respectively 5.9 shells, whizzbangs, pineapples so-called and machine-gun bullets. I never knew when I was not going to be blown to bits, but I do assure you I thought it curious myself that my feelings were not of fear. Surely there will be some recompense for us?’

In July the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, began. John sent home his beloved copy of Lavengro for safekeeping, but when it was the turn of his unit to go up to the front line he was sent instead on a trench mortar course, his commanding officer telling him, ‘We can’t have all our NCOs killed. We have to keep a certain number back.’

On 5 November Paul found him alive and well, writing to Margaret, ‘I must not say much but I can tell you that Jack has been miraculously spared... I found the dear old fellow at last after a day’s search looking very well – a bronzed and tattered soldier…’

It being Sunday the brothers took a drive behind the lines, ‘through the pleasant lands of France’, but then followed an anxious time as Paul tried desperately to get his brother commissioned as a war artist. John spent Christmas in a foxhole in No Man’s Land, covered in ice and sustained by bully beef and rum, then, on December 30th, took part in a counter-attack against German forces that had infiltrated British lines close to Cambrai. Leading fourteen men, Nash followed the Colonel’s command to go over the top and ran with the rest across the snow towards the German lines, only to be pinned down by machine gun fire. Men fell all around him but John, who had taken the precaution of removing his greatcoat with its prominent Corporal’s stripes before leaving shelter of the trench, survived unscathed.

This proved to be John Nash’s last battle. By the end of January he was back in England, and in May was appointed an official war artist alongside Paul, whose exhibition of fifty war pictures had just opened at the Leicester Galleries to enthusiastic reviews: ‘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…’

Of course there were many other artists at work during the Great War, some of whom produced lasting images of the conflict. While William Rothenstein represented the old school of military portraiture, Richard Nevinson brought Modernist techniques to the subject, using angular forms and repetition to suggest the war’s industrial-scale violence. Nash’s achievement lay in conveying the experience described by John in his letter to Christine, an experience shared by every man who served on the Western Front, of every nationality: that of staring over the parapet of a trench across the devastated landscape. 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.’

Thanks to Paul’s success the two brothers were now commissioned to produce major paintings for a proposed memorial museum. Neither had worked on such a scale before – Paul, indeed, had never painted in oils – but this did not deter them. They went in search of a studio where they could work side by side and found, on the common outside Chalfont St Peter, Bucks, not far from the family home at Iver Heath, an agricultural shed that had previously been used for drying medicinal herbs.

This is less eccentric than it sounds. The scale of the violence in France had created an unprecedented demand for medicines of all kinds and plants were used in numerous ways. Sphagnum moss, long cherished for its absorbancy, was dried and used in the manufacture of surgical dressings, while marigolds were grown for the soothing antiseptic quality of their essential oil, calendula; the landscape designer Gertrude Jerkyl set aside an acre for this purpose during the war.

Mrs Grieve at Work (photo Bucks County Council)
Herb growing in Chalfont St Peter was by this time well established, thanks to the efforts of Mrs Maude Grieve, a herbalist who wanted to help women find work in the increasingly mechanised world of modern agriculture. Shortly after moving to the village in 1905 Mrs Grieve had set up The Whins Medicinal and Commercial Herb School and Farm, and there taught the arts of growing, drying and processing medicinal herbs. Before the war many herbs were imported from central Europe, including belladonna, or deadly nightshade, a poisonous plant used in medicine as a sedative, narcotic and anti-spasmodic. At the outbreak of hostilities the trade was cut off, so Mrs Grieve began growing the herb and encouraged others to do so; before the Nashes’ arrival a group of Belgian refugees had been drying belladonna and its relative henbane in the shed where the brothers now set about creating their memorial to the conflict.

On his appointment as a war artist, John Nash had been asked by Buchan whether he would like to return to the Front and refresh his memory. Nash retorted that anyone who had been there was unlikely to forget what he had seen, but did make one request. So that he and Paul could accurately convey the details of life at the front could the War Office supply barbed wire, duckboards, gun chains, corrugated iron and so on to the studio? The materials were duly dispatched by lorry, signed for by the artist-officers, and arranged so as to recreate on the common the landscape of the trenches.

John Nash, Over the Top, 1918 (Imperial War Museum)
All this activity no doubt raised eyebrows in a village that was, in those days, still little more than a cluster of buildings at a crossroads, surrounded by farmland. Ten years earlier the rising number of cars passing through the village had forced the local authorities to tar the main roads, while speed restriction signs of 10mph were placed at each entrance to the village. But the 20th century influx of thousands had not yet begun, and the arrival of the uniformed artists in the summer of 1918 was an event. They brought their wives with them too. For Paul and Bunty, who took a room at a nearby farm, this was the first opportunity to live something like a normal life together. John, meanwhile, had married Christine – offering her respite from the unpleasant attention her German maiden name had attracted throughout the war – and moved with her into a cottage near the shed.

‘We all lunch together,’ Paul explained to Gordon Bottomley, ‘in the studio where there is a piano so our wives enchant us with music thro’ the day. A phantastic experience,’ he added, ‘as all lives seem these days but good while it lasts… France and the trenches would be a mere dream I suppose if our minds were not perpetually bent upon those scenes.’

Paul Nash, Void, 1918 (National Gallery of Canada)
Later John Nash recalled Paul’s insistence that they work for the Ministry of Information all day, escaping the shed to sketch and paint the surrounding landscape only after six o’clock. Occasional visits by the Ministry’s inspectors also no doubt helped to keep them honest. John focused on the events of December 30, 1917 in his painting ‘Over The Top: 1st Artists’ Rifles at Marcoing’, which he created from memory having had no opportunity to make sketches in the human swamp of the frontline trenches, while Paul produced a series of large, dramatic visions of the war’s deranged landscapes: ‘Void’, ‘We Are Making A New World’ and ‘The Menin Road’.

John Nash, The Cornfield, 1918/19 (Tate)

Paul Nash, Sudden Storm, 1919, lithograph (Tate)
So the brothers Nash worked away in their seed shed with their wives providing musical accompaniment, but they were not perpetually focused on their official duties. When the working day was over John studied the local landscape and painted ‘The Cornfield’, a vision of an idyllic rural England into which he poured his relief and gratitude for the recompense he had earlier wished for and which he was now enjoying; it was bought, fittingly, by the man who had done most to save him, Eddie Marsh.

Paul, meanwhile, found time for more clandestine adventures. Early in 1919 John reported that ‘Poor Bunty had a nervous break-up and she and Paul have returned to their flat…’ He failed to mention that the dashing military artist had seduced a Chalfont woman, and that her husband was threatening to kill him. With this inelegant departure the brothers’ work as war artists came to an end. By the spring both had been demobilised and were urgently trying to work out, after almost five years on the government payroll, how to live in this new world beyond the war.

I originally wrote this as the opening chapter of a book, but having established that the book will probably never be written I thought I should at least post the chapter online. The images are included for reference purposes, and copyright of course remains with the copyright holders. 


  1. James, many thanks for this truly excellent essay. This overlaps considerably with my own interests - particularly with the Camden Town Group and with the artists of The Artists Rifles.

  2. Thanks Patrick - I'm glad you enjoyed it... I always like your Artist Rifles tweets!

  3. Barbara in the Garden is now in Tullie House Museum Carlise with my favourite Wittenham Clumps. They have Gordon Bottomley Material. Do write your book on him or maybe write the Odeh story. Go North if you haven't

  4. Thanks - I'll make sure and visit Tullie House Museum

  5. Hi James
    Thank you so much for your engaging essay.
    I am from Adelaide, South Australia. I am currently training to be a guide for "Carrick Hill" which has a British Collection. I have to give a talk on the artist Paul Nash and then discuss his still life painting that we have called "Red Berries in a vase" 1922.
    I am finding it difficult to get information on the painting apart from that which we have in our guide book, but your essay has helped enormously as far as Paul is concerned! Many thanks and I hope that you do write the book.

  6. Thanks Ruth - best of luck with your training, maybe I'll come and have a tour of your collection one day!

  7. What a marvellous evocation of a period, and of two converging lives. Both of these people are dear to me, and you have captured them beautifully. I'd love to know how much Thomas knew of W.H. Hudson - another walker-writer who did so much to define a period and record ways of life that were fast receding. Whilst I agree that Thomas sometimes padded to meet his word-count in his prose writings, I do think that there are passages of 'The South Country' which are superbly observant and poetic. I would be delighted if you could offer your opinion of my own tribute to Thomas, which can be read in its entirety by clicking on 'Preview' here:

  8. Do, please, write your book. I should love to read it.

    Last year, I included the Nash brothers, their wives and Maude Grieve, and their connection with the seed shed on Chalfont Common, in a little book I published - 'The Famous and Infamous of Chalfont St Peter'. The book is shortly to be re-published in an expanded version as 'The Famous and Infamous of The Chalfonts and District'.

    The view seen in the painting 'The Cornfield' my still be glimpsed around Chalfont Common, albeit that The Whins herb farm is long gone and its site developed. The corn stooks too may be seen still as they are reproduced seasonally at The Chiltern Open Air Museum which is located just a little higher up from the common. As I walk around the common, which I often do as I live here, I enjoy the same tranquillity which the Nash brothers must have welcomed after the horrors of war.

  9. I really enjoyed this - am starting to explore Paul Nash after seeing the current exhibition at Tate Britain