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Paul Nash

 (1889 - 1946)
Paul Nash was active/lived in United States, United Kingdom, England.  Paul Nash is known for landscape and surreal style painting, war artist, illustration.

Paul Nash

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Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Paul Nash
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.


* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from Bonhams Bond Street
During his time at the Slade between 1910-11, Paul Nash became frustrated with the development of his landscape art.  The tutorship of acclaimed names such as Philip Wilson Steer and Derwent Lees failed to impress with the former's fondness for Constable providing little inspiration and the artist noting that he had 'explored the Constable country.  It held no terrors for me; I did not want to paint landscape like Constable' (Paul Nash quoted in Andrew Causey, Paul Nash, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980, p.24).  However, as a friend of Ben Nicholson he had direct access to probably the only landscape painter in England who could inspire him and during April 1911 was invited to spend time at Rottingdean, the family home, where father William was creating landscape paintings of the South Downs. Despite their size, these oils featured open skies with wheeling birds, little in the way of landscape features and the occasional single person (albeit not prominently positioned) or animal.  They incorporated modest design and subtle control of colouring to create a subdued mood which brought a 'new kind of silence' and led to Nash's first en plein air studies of trees.  It was shortly after this in the Spring of 1912 that Nash received further encouragement from Sir William Richmond R.A. who, in response to works such as Vision at Evening (1911, Victoria and Albert Museum), declared 'My boy you should go in for nature' (quoted in Causey, Loc.Cit) 

With Richmond's advice in mind Nash left his rooms in Chelsea for the parental home, Wood Lane House at Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire.  The property had been specially built for the family in 1901 and included a plot of about an acre and a half, bordered by great elm trees and carefully planted with maturing shrubbery.  The morning room, which Nash used as a studio, looked over what became known as the 'Bird Garden' and has been described by Roger Cardinal as 'where it all began' (R. Cardinal, The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash, London, 1989, p.63). Nash's intricate knowledge of the garden and surrounding area quickly led to seminal works such as The Three (1912, Private Collection) and the simply titled A Drawing (1913, Private Collection), which at £212,500 set a new world auction record for work on paper by the artist on 17 November 2014. 

Nash spoke of the 'Bird Garden' in his autobiography Outline, for which Sir Herbert Read wrote the foreword prior to its publication in 1949.  His words leave us with little doubt of the impact this room had and the catalyst it was in encouraging him to transpose his ideas on nature and the natural world into clear pictorial terms.  He describes how 'its magic lay within itself, implicated in its own design and its relationship to its surroundings.  In addition, it seemed to respond in a dramatic way to the influence of light.  There were moments when, through this agency, the place took on a startling beauty, a beauty to my eyes wholly unreal.  It was this "unreality", or rather this reality of another aspect of the accepted world, this mystery of clarity which was at once so elusive and so positive, that I now began to pursue and which from that moment drew me into itself and absorbed my life' (quoted in R. Cardinal, Loc.Cit.)

Away from the sanctuary of the family home, other natural influences purveyed during this time.  In 1912, the same year that The Peacock Path was executed, the Nash family visited relatives who lived close to Wittenham Clumps, an easterly outcrop of the Berkshire Downs which were formed of twin hills, each hosting beech woods.   A group of related works duly followed with Nash commenting that 'Ever since I remembered them the Clumps had meant something to me.  I felt their importance long before I knew their history.  They eclipsed the impression of all the early landscapes I knew.  This, I am certain, was due almost entirely to their formal features rather than to any associative force.  They were the pyramids of my small world' (Paul Nash quoted in Andrew Causey, Paul Nash, Landscape and the Life of Objects, Lund Humphries, Farnham, 2013, pp.29-30).

Several of the Wittenham pictures such as Under the Hill (1912, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery) mark the landscape around and descent from the Clumps and incorporate a path into the pictorial structure.  David Fraser Jenkins has spoken of 'a path through the elements' and the reoccurring importance of this motif within the artist's work during his formative years.  As early as 1911 he had executed The Wanderer (The British Museum) depicting a solitary figure, possibly Nash himself, disappearing into the woods through a distinctive yet subtle central path cut through the grass and he would continue to use it as a compositional structure throughout his career, perhaps most powerfully in the war image Marching at Night (1918, Victoria and Albert Museum).  The uniform and man-made path that has been cut through the long stalks of summer grass in the The Peacock Path dominates the foreground of the composition with a sense of intimacy created by the low viewpoint that is enhanced by the dramatic shadows cast by the trees. Trees, which had held a spiritual quality for Nash since childhood visits to Kensington Gardens, dot the landscape with the branches and canopies of those on the left and right akin to a curtain waiting to be pulled back and reveal the enchantment that lies beyond.  The peacock with its extravagant plumage and strong posture makes its way into this mystical world, a graceful bird whose presence seems almost to be a metaphor for the artist's free spirit which seems to inhabit the landscape.  The artist was sparing with colour at this point yet the blue and green wash that permeates the work serves to accentuate the feeling of magical complicity.  The Peacock Path demonstrates the exquisite ability of Nash as an artist to inscribe human emotions and sensitivities into the landscape.  While the human figure is absent from Nash's landscape, the work itself is nevertheless 'saturated with human presence and meaning' (R. Cardinal, Op.Cit., p.7).  This work was exhibited as part of Nash's first one-man show of drawings at the Carfax Gallery in 1912 and was subsequently included in two Tate Gallery exhibitions dedicated to the artist in 1948 and 1975 respectively.  Having originally been acquired by Mrs J L Garvin, it was bequeathed to Benedict Read and bears the inscription 'For Benedict Read, son of Herbert Read and my godson' (on the backboard).

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About  Paul Nash

Born:  1889 - London, England
Died:   1946 - Boscombe, Dorset, England
Known for:  landscape and surreal style painting, war artist, illustration