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 Paul Nash  (1889 - 1946)

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Lived/Active: United States/United Kingdom/England      Known for: landscape and surreal style painting, war artist, illustration

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from Auction House Records.
Encounter in the Afternoon
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Paul Nash (11 May 1889 - 11 July 1946) was an English landscape painter, surrealist and war artist, and the older brother of the artist John Nash.  He is widely considered one of the most important English artists of the first half of the twentieth century.

The son of a successful lawyer and a mentally unstable mother who died in a mental asylum in 1910, Nash was born in London on 11 May 1889.  He was educated at St Paul's School, and originally intended for a career in the Navy, like his maternal grandfather.  However, he failed his exams, and decided instead to take up art as a career.  Studying first at the Chelsea Polytechnic, he went on to the London County Council School of Photo Engraving* and Lithography*, where his work was spotted and praised by Selwyn Image.  He was advised by his friend, the poet Gordon Bottomley, and by the artist William Rothenstein, that he should attend the Slade School of Art* at University College, London.  He enrolled there in October 1910, though he later recorded that on his first meeting with the Professor of Drawing, Henry Tonks, '"It was evident he considered that neither the Slade, nor I, was likely to derive much benefit."

The Slade was then opening its doors to a remarkable crop of young talents - what Tonks later described as the School's second and last 'Crisis of Brilliance' (the first had seen such stars as Augustus John and Percy Wyndham Lewis). Nash's fellow students included Ben Nicholson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, Dora Carrington, Christopher R. W. Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth.  However, he struggled with figure drawing, and spent only a year at the School.  Influenced by the poetry of William Blake and the paintings of Samuel Palmer and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Nash had shows in 1912 and 1913 (sometimes alone, sometimes with his brother John), largely devoted to drawings and watercolours of brooding landscapes. By the summer of 1914 he was enjoying some success.

At the outbreak of World War I, Nash reluctantly enlisted in the Artists' Rifles and was sent to the Western Front in February 1917 as a second lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment.  A few days before the Ypres offensive he fell into a trench. He broke a rib and was invalided home.  While recuperating in London, Nash worked from his front-line sketches to produce a series of drawings of the war.  This work, which shows the influence of the literary magazine BLAST and the Vorticist* movement of which it was a manifesto, was well-received when exhibited later that year at the Goupil Gallery.

As a result of this exhibition, Christopher R.W. Nevinson advised Nash to approach Charles Masterman, head of the government's War Propaganda Bureau (WPB). Nash was recruited as an official war artist, and in November 1917 he returned to the Western Front where his drawings resulted in his first oil paintings.

Nash's work depicting the war included The Menin Road, We Are Making a New World, The Ypres Salient at Night, The Mule Track, A Howitzer Firing, Ruined Country and Spring in the Trenches.  They are some of the most powerful and enduring images of the Great War painted by an English artist.

Nash used his opportunity as a war artist to bring home the full horrors of the conflict. As he wrote to his wife from the front on 16 November 1917: "I am no longer an artist.  I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever.  Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls."

In the early 1920s, Nash, along with several other artists became prominent in the Society of Wood Engravers* and in 1920 was involved in its first exhibition.  He became close friends with Eric Fitch Daglish whom he educated in the art of wood engraving, and Daglish as a result went on to become a successful engraver.

Nash was also a pioneer of modernism in Britain, promoting the avant-garde* European styles of abstraction* and surrealism* in the 1920s and 1930s.  In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One* with fellow artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth and the critic Herbert Read.  It was a short-lived but important move towards the re-vitalisation of British art in the inter-war period.

During World War II Nash was again employed as an official war artist, this time by the Ministry of Information and the Air Ministry, and paintings he produced during this period include the Battle of Britain and Totes Meer (Dead Sea).

Nash found much inspiration in the English landscape, particularly landscapes with a sense of ancient history, such as burial mounds, Iron Age hill forts such as Wittenham Clumps, and the standing stones at Avebury in Wiltshire.  When in 1932 he was invited to illustrate a book of his own choice, Nash unhesitating choose Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus providing the publisher with a set of no less than 32 illustrations to accompany Browne's Discourses.  In his final years, he also returned to the influence of Blake that had so affected his early art, for example in the series of gigantic sunflowers including Sunflower and Sun (1942) and Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945) based on Blake's poem Ah! Sunflower.

in 1914 Nash married Margaret Odeh, an Oxford-educated campaigner for Women's Suffrage; they had no children.  Between 1934 and 1936, Paul Nash lived near Swanage, Dorset and produced a considerable number of paintings and photographs during this period.  Nash was asked by John Betjeman to author a book in the pre-war Shell Guide series.  Nash accepted and compiled a guide to Dorset, which features the peculiarities of landscape and architecture that are often overlooked.  The guide published in 1935 is now particularly rare.

Nash died of heart failure on 11 July 1946, at Boscombe, Dorset and was buried on 17 July, in the churchyard of St. Mary's Church, Langley, Buckinghamshire.


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