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Unquiet Landscape: Paul Nash and the psyche of nature

Posted on 28 Feb 2020

This extract from Christopher Neve’s 'Unquiet Landscape' examines Paul Nash’s gift for capturing haunting feelings on canvas.

Paul Nash, 'Wittenham Clumps', 1913. Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle

Christopher Neve is a painter and one of the leading experts on British art of the 20th century, and has written several books and numerous articles. For many years he was art critic on the staff of Country Life.

Paul Nash’s places have in common a dumb brightness and a sense of concealment. He had an orderly mind and a consistent view of the world that was part poetry and part graphic design. His fragile method was to apply to English landscape a form of ancient surrealism, like a water diviner or a finder of ley-lines on chalk, who does not actually alter anything but who has some odd quality that enables him to hint at what may be hidden.

It meant that all his life he had to look for places and objects which carried for him a particular charge. He found it, as you would expect, in ancient sites, in clumps and standing stones, where the enormity of what had passed was still in the air like electricity. But he also found it behind unexpected buildings, in gardens, or left lying on the beach.

His way of encapsulating this oddness was a kind of archaeology. Archaeology implies getting at time by uncovering something, and yet when you look at his pictures you cannot escape the curious sensation that what they are doing is covering something up. They litter the ground, with cylinders, flints, fallen trees, pyramids, crashed aeroplanes, tennis balls. Like the standing stones set up by primitive man to mark his place, these are plainly monuments in the landscape. But monuments to what?

Paul Nash, 'Event on the Downs', 1934. Government Art Collection, UK

[…] It was in the wire-filled and table-flat garden of his father’s new house at Iver Heath, in Buckinghamshire, about 1913, that Paul Nash’s pictorial imagination could be said to have first twitched and woken up. It was an impossibly starry night, and the trees that lined the edge of the croquet lawn seemed inordinately tall.

Straight paths, edged and gravelled, led from the house to the kitchen garden where his younger brother preferred to draw vegetables in the afternoons. Paul Nash concentrated on drawing the intersecting paths and the hatched rectangles of wire netting which ruled off the herbaceous borders from the cornfields out of which the new garden had been bitten. He liked their geometry. When he looked up at the house, its architecture must have produced in him a similar sensation of order. Like a dormie house or a seaside villa, it seems now more Thirties in feel than Edwardian. Some of its window-frames were placed at corners so that they faced on to two sides of the building.

But mostly he drew the trees. He drew them not at all in a generalized way but as individuals. They were elms and acacias. He showed their twigs and branches in an unblinking stare by daylight and as ink silhouettes at night, the sky behind them crowded with stars and shooting stars, star-dust.

About the same time, he began going to stay with an uncle at Long Wittenham, Oxfordshire, and drawing the twin stands of tall beeches called Wittenham Clumps. He drew them always from a distance, as he saw them from his bedroom window or on bicycle rides, emphasizing the wide space they occupy on the two mounds of the Sinodun Hills. Sometimes he drew cloud shadow feeling its way across the contours of the landscape and sweeping up to cross the clumps. Sometimes he filled the air around the trees with flocks of pencilled birds, so distant that they are little gnats on a warm evening. He had noticed while drawing in the garden at Iver Heath how several trees growing together could take on the silhouette of a single one. In the Wittenham Clumps drawings he made the trees, isolated and pressed together tightly on their hilltops, into erect bundles like bunches of celery.

Paul Nash, 'Wittenham Clumps', 1913. Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle

In Wytschaete Woods the trees were blasted apart. He drew them as splinters and stumps. In the Ypres salient, near Vimy, and along the Menin road in 1917, he drew the remaining trees like broken crosses, the sky beyond them no longer full of birds or stars but of constellations that exploded.

At Dymchurch, on the Kent coast, he began to paint the bleak shore. ‘A war artist without a war’ he called himself in the Twenties. Instead of defences against armies he drew defences against the sea, the only bombardment the bombardment of waves. As if his mind had been emptied by the horrors of war, and by the jostling of men and transport, his preoccupation became vacancy. He showed how concrete ramps and army-grey shingle sloped into the grey sea towards France. It was a landscape that replaced the urgency of suffering with the vacant afternoon of no feeling at all.

He drew the sea like a frozen layered mere; as salty levels, flat as the Marsh on the other side of the coast road. Rather than show its flying movement, the way the waves run in to be bayonetted by the breakwaters, he stopped it dead and related it to the steps and wedges of the land.

Once, before the war, he had invented a subject that prefigured this. Wanting clear, architectural shapes, he had drawn pyramids, but instead of setting them on the flat surface of the sand he had placed them in the sea. He saw them as if in a dream against a night sky. Their great bulk, threatened by the humped water, had stood for impossible oppositions – the still and the moving, the live and the dead, the irresistible force and the immovable object.

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Unquiet Landscape

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