Paul Nash is one of the most important English artists of the 20th century, best known for his work as an official war artist but also as a surrealist and landscape painter. He was born in London, the eldest of three children, the son of a barrister. His younger brother was John Nash whose work can also be seen in this catalogue. Because of his maternal family’s naval background, John Nash was destined for the Navy, but having failed the entrance examination he returned to St Paul’s School, London which he left at the age of seventeen. After a short time at Chelsea Polytechnic School of Art, Nash went to the Slade School of Fine Art in 1910 with the encouragement of William Rothenstein. This was also the year when his mother died, having suffered from mental illness for some years.The Slade had at the time a group of young talented artists which included Ben Nicholson, Stanley Spencer and Dora Carrington, but unlike them Nash was not iinfluenced by the Post-Impressionists. Instead he concentrated in what he was good at: the depiction of nature. As a child Paul’s family had moved to the country in Buckinghamshire and tall elm trees at the end of his garden had made a special impression present in early paintings where the power, vitality and drama of nature is evident. After only a year at the Slade where he struggled with figure drawing, Paul Nash devoted himself to the drawings and watercolours of landscapes, culminating in a successful first one man show at the prestigious Carfax Gallery in 1912. Two years later he married the daughter of a former priest in Cairo, Margaret Odeh. They never had children.
In September 1914 Paul Nash joined the Artists’ Rifles and by March 1917 he was sent to Ypres where, after only three months, he fell into a trench, breaking a rib. This was just before the offensive where his division was virtually annihilated. Sent home, while recuperating, he worked on the series of sketches he had made on the front line. This work which was exhibited at the Goupil Gallery was very well received and he was immediately recruited as an Official War Artist. In November 1917 he returned to the Front. This resulted in a series of some of the most powerful oil paintings of the war. To recreate the horror of war, Nash had adopted elements of Cubism and Vorticism thus rendering the landscapes into terrifying visions. It is these works which made his reputation.
After the war, inevitably, Nash became disorientated and called himself ‘a war artist without a war’. in 1921 he suffered a severe nervous breakdown and decided to rent, with his wife, a cottage in Dymchurch in Kent where he could recuperate. There he was inspired by the landscape and the sea, the melancholy of the place suiting perfectly his post-war mood. It is there too that his career as a book illustrator began. He became the leader of the revival of wood engraving playing an important role in the Society of Wood Engravers.
Nash was also a pioneer of Modernism in Britain and promoted Abstraction and Surrealism in the 1920s and 1930’s, co-founding the influential modern art movement Unit One with fellow artists such as Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson. Under the influence of avant-garde artists, whom he discovered in Paris and during his visits to Europe, Nash experimented with abstract designs in many book illustrations. There he used abstract and geometric features in an attempt to impose order and structure on its subjects. In the second half of the decade his work became increasingly Surrealist.
In 1929 the death of his father led him to respond by depicting death in nature. Suffering from severe asthma he depicted vast lonely spaces, an answer to the claustrophobic effects of the disease. Despite his illness, at the outbreak of World War Two, Nash moved to Oxford and soon became involved with the promotion of artistic skills in the service of the war. In 1940 he was again employed as an official war artist, but this time by the Ministry of Information and the Air Ministry, which suited him as he had always wanted to fly as a child. However this time his paintings bore no resemblance to the desolate landscapes of the previous war and were not so well received by his patrons. His last works were of flowers and landscapes dominated by giant flowers. Paul Nash died on 11 July 1946 in Bournemouth; he is buried in Longley church, Buckinghamshire.
A bryony is a climbing plant native to North Africa, the Canary Islands and South Asia and the convolvulus a climbing plant of the pea family. Nash used the convolvulus a number of times in book illustrations. For example he associated the Convolvulus and the Mandrake, a plant with hallucinogenic properties, the roots long used in magic rituals, in Sir Tomas Browne’s book on alchemy The Garden of Cyrus. There the two plants are compared to two moving snakes. There is no indication however that this particular engraving was ever published but there might be a similarity in meaning. If the convolvulus is fairly recognisable, the same cannot be said of the Bryony as only its exposed roots are visible.
- ARTS COUNCIL OF GREAT BRITAIN, Paul Nash Places, 1989
- CAUSEWAY, Andrew, Paul Nash, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1980GREENWOOD, Jeremy, The Wood Engravings of Paul Nash, The Wood Lea Press, Woodbridge, 1997
- IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, Paul Nash Aerial Creatures, 1996
- NAHUM, Peter at The Leicester Galleries
- NASH, Paul, Outline: An Autobiography , Faber & Faber, London 1951