From English woodlands to war: the pioneering paintings of Paul Nash

Nash lost his heart to the English countryside – and his illusions in two world wars. A major retrospective coming to Tate Britain gives a more complete picture of a modern master

Paul Nash is arguably the greatest war artist Britain has produced. The works that first earned him real renown, We Are Making a New World and The Menin Road, are iconic images of the trenches: with their splintered tree stumps and lumpy mud seas, they shockingly captured the annihilation of nature at bomb-blasted Ypres and Passchendaele. Nash found a new style of art to represent a new horror. Two and half decades later, more esteemed than ever and a war artist once again, he painted the unforgettable ocean graveyard of crashed German planes, Totes Meer.

Nash is also one of the most interesting British landscape painters of the 20th century, much loved for his pictures that divine the “spirit” of Avebury, Wittenham Clumps and other English places with which he felt a strong, almost mystical, connection. His work Wood on the Downs (1929), a study of beech trees and chalklands, has been subject to constant reproduction since first exhibited, and its popularity is unsurprising: it is a hugely pleasing coming together of Englishness and modernistic art. His pictures found a refreshing, contemporary way to express a deeply felt communion with the English countryside – trees, paths, birds, hills.

Nash’s transformations of reality were the product of a visionary sensibility that harked back to William Blake and Samuel Palmer; he searched for inner meanings in the landscape, what he called the “things behind”. Yet he also was constantly on the lookout, as he said, for “a different angle of vision”, and as such was alert to the new movements transforming art on the continent, including abstraction and surrealism. His solutions to the problem of how to represent the forms and patterns of nature changed throughout his career. One thing stayed the same, however: his pictures are strange, unsettling and rather melancholy, and are so appealing precisely because of their strangeness.

Paul Nash’s Wood on the Downs (1930).
Paul Nash’s Wood on the Downs (1930). Photograph: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

It is impossible to consider Nash without the influence on him of modernism, which began as early as the 1917-18 war pictures with the zig-zag vorticism of Christopher Nevinson – geometric planes and night skies sliced by searchlight beams. Nash’s engagement with abstraction and surrealism took different routes through the late 1920s and 30s – in the exceptional Winter Sea, for example, begun in the mid-20s in Dymchurch, Kent, where moonlit waves become recessive straight lines and firm-edged blocks of colour.

The dreamscapes of Magritte and De Chirico redirected his 1930s work – Blue House on the Shore is lovely and disquieting, seemingly conjured in a reverie; while one oil, Nocturnal Landscape, seemed so Freudian that Nash said its interpretation would offer “jam for the psycho boys”. Equivalents of the Megaliths is different again, a meeting of deep history and maths: the standing stones at Avebury are reimagined as solid, abstract forms – cylinders, a girder and a white gridded screen – set down in a Wiltshire cornfield.

While critics have recognised this engagement with modernism, many have preferred to dwell on Nash as a painter with a personal response to landscape, and to emphasise that his version of continental experimentalism was thoroughly domesticated. Several of the newspaper reviews of the last major Nash exhibition, at Tate Liverpool in 2003, were typical in suggesting that he is best seen as part of an English tradition, that his efforts at surrealism are clunky (a Betjemanesque version of Magritte), and that the cubism he practised was merely a decorative, salon variety. His interest in abstraction and surrealism was not at his core, it has been argued, and such borrowed styles conflicted with his native gift.

The exhibition about to open at Tate Britain challenges this head on. With over 160 works (the biggest show since the 1975 Tate retrospective), it is large enough to accommodate any interpretation of Nash, but it underlines his importance as a pioneering figure of the British avant garde. Here he is not only a romantic individual communing with the land, but a highly varied artist at the centre of networks of experimental creators. According to the curator Emma Chambers, the goal “is not simply to move consideration of his art beyond the war work, but also to show aspects of his work beyond landscape. In the 1930s, still life, surrealism, found objects are all areas that Nash explored, and this is also a moment when he expanded his use of media into photography, collage and assemblage.” The effect is to round out a major artist and make him even more beguiling.

In his writings of the late 1920s and early 30s, Chambers points out, Nash attacked the insularity of British art, and robustly defended abstraction; he was clearly on the side of the experimenters. Looking for new inspiration, he castigated what he called the “safety first” tendency of domestic art; the French, on the other hand, had “reached out, they have real mental daring”. Over a decade, he responded with vigour to the ideas of Picasso, Cocteau, Ernst and other leading continental figures.

Three episodes in his career are given special consideration in the new Tate show. In 1933, Nash helped found Unit One, a group that included the artists Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Edward Burra and the modernist architect Wells Coates. Announcing its creation, Nash wrote that “Unit One may be said to stand for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit”; an exhibition toured the country over the next couple of years. A room at the Tate brings together works from the Unit One artists, and showcases their catalogue. Though it remains difficult now to apprehend just how embattled they felt – what outliers they were in the English art world of the 1930s – this is a valuable attempt to relive what Chambers calls “an important moment” for Nash, “staking out a place for modernist art in an unsympathetic environment”.

Three years later, Nash was an organiser of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, which featured Dalí, André Breton and Miró, and caused something of a stir. One article dubbed Nash “English surrealist-in-chief”. The Tate gives this episode some prominence too, and includes treatises on surrealism published at the time, as well as a number of Nash’s paintings that were on display to the thousands of intrigued visitors in 1936. In one of these, Harbour and Room, a Magrittian meditation on sleep, dreams and death, a ship sails into an interior space and water laps towards a fireplace and mirrored wall. Outside meets inside, and it is odd indeed.

Nash’s Event on the Downs (1934).
Nash’s Event on the Downs (1934). Photograph: Government Art Collection, UK

Nash had a passionate affair in the mid-1930s with the surrealist artist Eileen Agar; together they looked about them, in town and country, for suggestive shapes and juxtapositions. The Tate presents a number of her photographs and objects (rocks, shells, wood, bones) alongside those of Nash, not least to highlight the variety of the nature art he was making – partly thanks to her. Found objects played a central role in many of his best-known surrealist works, for instance in Event on the Downs the gnarly tree stump and giant tennis ball in front of the white cliffs of the Dorset coast – where Nash and Agar first met.

Asked to identify two significant lesser-known works in the Tate show, Chambers first identifies the urban still life Dead Spring from 1929, which depicts a dead pot plant and set of drawing instruments on the window sill of Nash’s London flat overlooking an empty St Pancras advertising hoarding. This is the “observed reality”, but the canvas is also a working through of cubist ideas of overlapping planes and multiple viewpoints.

Chambers’s second choice is the amusing Forest (1936-7), a surrealist wooden relief “made from glove stretchers slotted into a wooden backing; the stretchers metamorphose into tree forms while continuing to suggest hands”. The work reflects Nash’s interest in Ernst, who also metamorphosed landscapes and natural objects into “strange and contradictory states”.


Nash’s official identification with the surrealist movement was short-lived, though its ideas lasted longer. That it spoke to him at all was no doubt because he always had a kind of surrealist sensibility, one that emerged in his earliest paintings (“Surrealism found me,” he later claimed). From the beginning, after a mentor advised him to “go in for Nature”, his work had a metaphorical quality, with things standing in for or implying something else (“I have tried … to paint trees as though they were human beings,” he said).

The first room of the Tate exhibition has a dozen or so of the delightfully spooky ink and watercolour works that the young Nash made in 1911-13, and the lines of continuity between, say, The Pyramids in the Sea and his later work are clear to see. Here already is a kind of tension of opposites: a peculiar meeting of geometry and stormy waves, it shows the influence of Blake and Yeats and symbolism; Nash at the time described the eclipsed moonlight as “uncanny”.

Nash’s Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935).
Nash’s Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935). Photograph: Paul Nash/©Tate

Then came the war, which was slow to affect him, but when it did caused emotional devastation. The Tate show doesn’t include many of his wartime works but has several of the most important ones; it is a testament to their power that they remain disturbing despite their familiarity. When 25-year-old Lieutenant Nash first arrived at the Ypres trenches in the spring of 1917 he wrote home expressing something like ecstasy. As an artist drawn to new ways of seeing nature and landscape, the battlefields offered a strange vision – “wonderful ruinous forms”. And in fields pocked with shell holes, with trees torn to shreds and reeking of poison gas, flowers bloomed everywhere: “This place is just joyous, the dandelions are bright gold over the parapet.”

Late in May, he fell heavily, broke a rib and was sent home. Just a few days later, his unit was engaged in an offensive and was almost wiped out; he knew how lucky he had been. When he returned to Flanders in the aftermath of Passchendaele, this time as an official war artist, he no longer found any trace of beauty or rejuvenation. That was when he wrote the haunting, often quoted letter to his wife, Margaret, that is on display at the Tate:

I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature, unspeakable, utterly indescribable … Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man … The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow … the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease … I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger … Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.

The years after the Armistice were difficult; Nash was, in his own description, a “war artist without a war”; he suffered a nervous collapse, and was visited by terrible images; poison gas had damaged his lungs. What’s more, he had money worries and enemies in the art world. With the exception of the angular bleakness of The Shore and other Dymchurch paintings, along with his illustrations for an edition of Genesis, his work during much of the 1920s indicates he took a long time to recuperate.

Late in the decade he started to respond to a new visual stimulus, as exhibitions of avant-garde international art began to be staged in London. His imagination was set free once more. A man who had a fervent attachment to the English land but never a settled home, he lived in various locations – Iden, Rye, Swanage, Hampstead – finding particular places that spoke to him and new ways of representing them. Even after his most obvious surrealist phase was over, he continued to think about “objects as personages”, for instance in his late-1930s photos of animal-like fallen trees, which he called ‘“monsters”. During his life he identified different kinds of monsters, from rusted anchors to Dorset dinosaurs to bomber planes; it was another way of rendering the English pastoral uncanny.

Flight of the Magnolia (1944) by Paul Nash.
Flight of the Magnolia (1944) by Paul Nash. Photograph: © Tate

The disorientations of surrealism also prepared him for painting the wreckage of shot-down German planes when another war arrived in 1939 and he was attached to the RAF and Air Ministry. The Tate exhibition includes photos he took of the twisted metal carcasses of wrecked enemy aircraft at a vast dump at Cowley, near Oxford. These fed directly into Totes Meer, and are of more interest than Nash’s more naturalistic and propagandist pictures of planes. The set piece Battle of Britain, with its swooping vapour trails against vivid blue, and Battle of Germany, with its fiery explosion-red sky and huge moon, are among his late masterpieces, though given their subject matter they seem to offer almost too much beauty.

Nash painted right up to his death in 1946, and the work in the final room of this marvellous show is bold and surprising, and certainly visionary – how else to describe a huge sunflower head spinning down a hill, or a great magnolia flying in the sky? He had been ill for a while, and the “aerial flowers” were a presentiment of death, though the sun paintings refer to eternal cycles of nature and rebirth. These late pictures are less cerebral, and have an air about them of letting go; the brushwork is freer too. The direct influence of modernism was now in the past, but he was caught up, as ever, in looking at the world and seeing patterns and mysterious “things behind”. An artist both full of wonder and wonderful, knowing the end was near, painted pictures that were stranger than ever.

Paul Nash opens at Tate Britain, London SW1, on 26 October.


Paul Laity

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Paul Nash review – between dream and nightmare
Strangeness on the Downs meets the horrors of two world wars in the biggest show of Nash’s work in a generation

Laura Cumming

06, Nov, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Paul Nash Tate Britain exhibition to feature 'lost' surrealist sculpture
Moon Aviary, found stored in pieces in a cardboard box, goes on display with other rarely seen works by the British war artist

Maev Kennedy

24, Oct, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
How Dickens, Brontë and Eliot influenced Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh spent three years in London and delighted in Britain’s literary heritage, a love that is explored in a new Tate show

Kathryn Hughes

05, Apr, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Fighting History – Antony Beevor on paintings of conflict and catastrophe
The death of Captain Cook, Amelia Earhart’s aeroplane, the miners’ strike … the new Tate Britain show ranges widely in its exploration of disputes, patriotism and martyrdom in history painting

Antony Beevor

29, May, 2015 @10:48 AM

Article image
'Four-minute warning: time to boil your last egg' – 100 years of anti-war protests
From Paul Nash’s barbed wire truths to Tony Blair’s blazing selfie, the Imperial War Museum is exploring anti-war art and demos. What difference did they make?

Lara Feigel

17, Mar, 2017 @12:00 PM

Article image
Zaha Hadid: from flaming sketchbooks to global phenomenon
Her gravity-defying buildings made her a giant in architecture. But, as her maths gallery swoops into the Science Museum and her unseen notebooks go on show, we ask: can Zaha Hadid’s legacy last?

Oliver Wainwright

09, Dec, 2016 @2:57 PM

Article image
Sculptor Richard Deacon: why one pair of hands is never enough
Ahead of his retrospective at Tate Britain, the renowned sculptor tells Nicholas Wroe how he has realised that it doesn't matter 'who actually puts the screw in'

Nicholas Wroe

31, Jan, 2014 @2:00 PM

Article image
Paul Nash, Anne Hardy, Tino Sehgal: the week's art shows in pictures

From Paul Nash's intricate engravings in Chichester to Anne Hardy's installations in London, find out what's happening in art around the country

Skye Sherwin

12, Apr, 2013 @12:00 PM

Article image
Paul Theroux on how artist Ashley Bickerton became an alien in paradise
From sharks to transgender nymphs, Bickerton’s vibrant visions of tropical island life play on the experience of being an expat outsider. Paul Theroux meets a connoisseur of not belonging

Paul Theroux

31, Mar, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
From Frankenstein to feminism: how electricity powered our imaginations
A new exhibition charts the changing place of electricity in our lives, our homes and in literature

Naomi Alderman

20, Feb, 2017 @11:00 AM