Research point: Artists who work in series with the landscape ~ Part 2: Paul Nash
The second artist in this series of research posts was suggested to me by my tutor. I’m unsure as to whether or not the following will qualify as a ‘series’ – it is a recurring subject, though, so I am referring to it on that basis.
Paul NASH 1889-1946
Painter, printmaker, designer, writer and photographer. Essentially self-taught. Served as an Official War Artist in both wars. He created a large body of work, but I’m going to focus on a subject he painted early on in his career, and to which he returned many times in the last decade of his life – the Wittenham Clumps. The Clumps are two ancient Iron Age hill forts crowned with beech trees in South Oxfordshire – Castle Hill and Round Hill. Nash first encountered them as a teenager, and ‘was immediately caught by their atmospheric shapes and mystical associations’ (Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps, 2013a). In a letter to a friend, he described them as ‘Grey hollowed hills crowned by old old trees, Pan-ish places down by the river wonderful to think on, full of strange enchantment… a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten’ (Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps, 2013b).
In September 1912, Nash wrote ‘I wanted an image of them which would express what they meant to me. I realised that I might well make a dozen drawings and still find new aspects to portray’ – in this way, ‘Nash used the landscape to explore his personal feelings and the universe around him’ (Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps, 2013b).
Nash was interested in what lay beneath the surface. For this reason, he was drawn to the work of Samuel Palmer, William Blake, and the Pre-Raphaelites, artists who approached the English landscape from a mystical perspective, seeking the spirit of a place. There is an intense quality to much of Nash’s work, and this is true of many of the Wittenham paintings. His sensitive nature and work as a war artist no doubt coloured his perception, and this was reflected in his depictions of the landscape. As he wrote in Outline: An Autobiography and Other Writings, ‘it was always the inner life of the subject rather than its characteristic lineaments which appealed to me, though that life, of course, is inseparable, actually, from its physical features’ (Bookroom Art Press, 2013).
By the time of Wittenham (1935, above), Nash’s style was much freer than in his earlier work. Increasingly, his paintings focused on seasonal cycles, ‘the ebb and flow of tides and the rising and setting of sun and moon’ (Causey, 2013). He examined these themes in several depictions of the Wittenham Clumps.
Nash’s declining health (he suffered from chronic asthma) necessitated several hospital stays in the early 1940’s. He convalesced at a friend’s house which had a clear view of the Clumps, some eight miles away. He began a series of paintings featuring them and, in order to bring them closer, he ‘viewed them through field glasses, creating an unusual foreshortened perspective in the paintings and enhancing their feeling of mystery’ (Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps, 2013c). This expressive series used cycles of nature to explore the broader themes of male and female/life and death. Speaking of Sunflower and Sun (1942, see above), Nash wrote ‘There was such a sunflower and some such effect of sunlight. All the elements of this picture were present in more or less degree. But the drama of the event, which implies the mystical association of the sun and the sunflower, is heightened by the two opposing ellipses and by the other echoing forms of the sky which retaliate with the same apparent movement of outspread wings made by the leaves of the flower’ (Art Gallery NSW, 2013).
Despite their representational nature, there is an ethereal quality to many of these later pictures. They are recognisable as depictions of that particular place, and yet there is an unworldly aspect about them. Perhaps it’s the semi-abstracted style in which they are painted. In Landscape of the Summer Solstice (1943, see above), the apparent heat haze caused by the high blazing sun serves to heighten the sense of slight unreality. The flowers in the foreground create a feeling of depth, with the hills in the distance, and the sun beyond. The colours are intense, as high as the solstice sun.
For Nash, the moon symbolised ‘the changing rhythm of the seasons, of decay and rebirth, life and death’ (Tate, 2013). It features in his beautiful painting of 1943-44, Landscape of the Moon’s last phase (see above). Again, this is a heavily stylised interpretation of the landscape, full of intense colour. Here, Nash moved in much closer to the Clumps, offering yet another perspective of his special place. The moon in it’s last phase, and the dying sunflower in the foreground are both suggestive of death and endings.
Wittenham Clumps (c.1943-44, see above) is the one known example of an unfinished work by Nash. He tended to make his oil paintings in the studio, working from pencil or watercolour sketches he had made in the field. ‘In the studio he sometimes worked at an easel with a mirror arranged nearby to give him a reverse view of his work. He mixed his oil colours on a plate-glass table top using linseed and poppy oils or petrol. His favourite colours were: Ash-Blue, Cobalt Green, Payne’s Grey, Lemon Yellow, the Ochres, the Siennas, Terra-Verte and Crimson. Nash’s colours were generally restrained until the last years of his life when he developed a more vibrant palette’ (Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps, 2013d).
Landscape of the Vernal Equinox III (1944, see above) was described by Nash as ‘a landscape of the imagination which has evolved in two ways: on the one hand through a personal interpretation of the phenomenon of the equinox, on the other through the inspiration derived from an actual place’ (Royal Collection, 2013). One of the hills is lit by the moon, while the other is lit by the sun, marking the fact that the night and day are equal in length at the time of the Spring equinox.
To close, I want to post Landscape of the Wittenham Clumps (1946), as it provides an excellent contrast between Nash’s earlier works, such as The Wood on the Hill (1912). In both depictions, the location is recognisable, and yet the style in the later work is wholly changed. In the earlier piece, there is a tightness that is swept away in this last picture. In it’s place is a loose and expressively sketched rendition of the site that had been such a prominent part of Nash’s life and his art.
Art Gallery NSW (2013), Paul Nash [Online], Available at http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/7435/ (Accessed 20 October 2013).
Bookroom Art Press (2013), Paul Nash [Online], Available at http://www.bookroomartpress.co.uk/biographies/20.html (Accessed 20 October 2013).
Causey, A. (2013), Paul Nash [Online], Available at http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T061053pg1?q=paul+nash&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed 20 October 2013).
Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps (2013a), Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps [Online], Available at http://www.nashclumps.org/ (Accessed 20 October 2013).
Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps (2013b), Early Works: The Wood on the Hill, 1912 [Online], Available at http://www.nashclumps.org/early.html (Accessed 20 October 2013).
Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps (2013c), Later Works: Sunflower and Sun [Online], Available at http://www.nashclumps.org/later.html (Accessed 20 October 2013).
Paul Nash and the Wittenham Clumps (2013d), Technique [Online], Available at http://www.nashclumps.org/technique.html (Accessed 20 October 2013).
Royal Collection (2013), Landscape of the vernal equinox [Online], Available at http://arteverywhere.org.uk/artwork/landscape-of-the-vernal-equinox/ (Accessed 20 October 2013).
Tate (2013), Paul Nash: Modern artist, ancient landscape: Room guide: The Wittenham Clumps [Online], Available at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/paul-nash/paul-nash-modern-artist-ancient-landscape-room-guide-6 (Accessed 20 October 2013).