Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) was a prominent British artist, particularly well-known as an official war artist during WWI and WWII. His younger brother, John Nash (1893 – 1977), was also a noted artist and engraver.
A blue plaque commemorates Paul Nash’s former residence in Bloomsbury, on the north-facing exterior of Queen Alexandra Mansions, Bidborough Street, WC1 (see map below).
Paul Nash attended St Paul’s School, Chelsea Polytechnic, London County Council School of Photo-engraving & Lithography, and the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London - where his classmates included Dora Carrington (1893 – 1932), Stanley Spencer (1891 – 1959), and Edward Wadsworth (1889 – 1949):
“In October 1910 a new set of students arrived at the Slade. They included William Roberts, a gifted but scruffy schoolboy of fifteen, and Paul Nash, a handsome, smartly-dressed young man of twenty-one, who in his suit and spats seemed out of place amongst what he considered the “eccentric sartorials” of the Slade. [Christopher R. W.] Nevinson came up and loudly asked him if he was an engineer. Nash recalled how Nevinson’s barbed remark ‘got a laugh, and I felt a pariah. It meant that I did not “belong” and, looking round from [Mark] Gertler with his Swinburne locks and blue shirt to Roberts and [Stanley] Spencer with their uncompromising disregard for appearance, or Nevinson himself with his Quartier Latin tie and naive hat, I was forced to accept the implication.’ (A Crisis of Brilliance, David Haycock 2010, p. 65).
In 1914, Nash married women’s rights campaigner Margaret Odeh:
“Margaret was private secretary to the organiser of the Tax Resistance League, a Suffrage organisation that helped women who refused to pay their taxes. One activity Margaret organised was the auctions where non-payers were forced to sell off their possessions in lieu of their tax debts. Nash accompanied her to a sale in Tottenham Court Road, and was astounded at what happened … the women speakers ‘stormed and shouted against the hooting crowd,’ some of whom threw mud, stones and eggs, whilst ‘Government men’ stirred up the trouble. The worst protesters were medical students. ‘What you want, sweetheart,’ one growled, grinning into Margaret’s face, ‘is raping.’ She struck him across the face with a horsewhip and drew blood. Standing on top of a horse-drawn milk cart, brandishing her whip, Nash likened her to ‘a new kind of Boadicea, scattering the enemy hordes.’ “ (Haycock, p. 156).
Nash left the Slade after a year, and exhibited his landscapes in various shows. He was sent to the Western Front in 1917 as a second lieutenant, but luckily for him, he sustained injuries in a fall and was sent home. While convalescing, he produced a series of drawings of his frontline experience, which led to his appointment as an official war artist by the War Propaganda Bureau. In 1933 he co-founded the Unit One art movement.
Paul Nash is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard in Langley, Buckinghamshire.
Simon Grant described the influence of war and death on Nash’s art thus:
” … beneath his quiet lyrical pastoralism was a much darker side, reflected in his lifelong preoccupation with the theme of mortality. While his love for landscape gave him his subject, it was the spectre of death that gave him his spirit. This was a sentiment that appeared throughout his career, from his early experiments with Romanticism. It was radically transformed by his experience on the Western Front, developed through the inter-war years, and took final shape in the Second World War paintings … When Nash returned to the Front as an official war artist to witness the aftermath of the battle of Passchendaele, what he saw radically transformed both his art and his attitude to death. The landscape that Nash had seen defiantly in bloom in the spring was now a barren, blasted quagmire, littered with the dead. Only the splintered stumps of trees remained. Nash expressed the death of the men through the death of nature in his chalk sketches. In a letter to his wife Margaret, he described what he saw as apocalyptic: ‘Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be the master of the ceremonies in this war: no glimmer of God’s hand is seen. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous mockeries to man; only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds or through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land.’ (Tate Magazine, issue 6).
Charles Darwent wrote of Nash’s later style:
“For 35 years, Nash painted a small range of elemental things – trees and tree trunks, knapped flints, birds’ nests, doorways – regrouping them like pieces on a chessboard, or like soldiers on a battle plan. For the most part, these scenes were imagined, their elements and the arrangement of those elements so charged with symbolism that even Nash’s landscapes really count as still lifes. The idea that Nash recorded what he saw, on the Menin Road or by the sea in Dymchurch, needs knocking on the head … Above all, you feel, there is sex. Nash, unusually open to the European avant-garde, was an early subscriber to Surrealism. This suited him well in various ways, the improbable juxtaposing of unlikely objects being at the heart of Surrealism’s method and his own. The surrealist taste for things erotic also shades the paths through Nash’s woods, his fascination with dew ponds and standing stones, with fallen trees. One work in particular – The Archer, first painted in 1930 and reworked over the course of a dozen years – seems to unlock Nash. The po-faced depiction of an upended toy boat, its mast pointing at a target, The Archer is like the illustration from a Freudian casebook. Behind its child-like innocence, lie the irrationality of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, the mythic quality of The Golden Bough.” (The Independent, 14th February 2010).
Photos by Sven Klinge
(please credit photographer & website when using these photos)
- Paul Nash: The Elements by David Fraser Jenkins
- A Terrible Beauty: War, Art and Imagination 1914 – 1918 by Paul Gough
- Paul Nash (British Artists Series) by David Haycock
- Paul Nash and John Nash (Design) by Brian Webb & Peyton Skipwith
- A Crisis of Brilliance by David Haycock