Fabulous new Nash exhibition coming to Tate Britain
Paul Nash loved nature and the English countryside – but war overshadowed his life. As a major exhibition of his work opens at Tate Britain, David Boyd Haycock profiles one of Britain’s greatest 20th-century landscape painters
Paul Nash may have been born in West London in 1889, but his roots lay firmly in the English countryside. His paternal ancestors were yeoman farmers from Buckinghamshire and Berkshire and his grandfather was lay rector at Langley Marish, a village near Slough. In Outline, Nash’s unfinished memoir, he recalled many precious childhood moments spent at the rectory. “Guests came and went, tea-parties gathered in the shade of the mulberry-tree, shooting luncheons were devoured in the paddock under the chestnuts, and Christmas was still a family festival. Christmas at Langley Rectory! That is something to remember from another age.”
It was during these visits to Langley, as well as to other country relatives, that young Nash discovered a love of nature that would last a lifetime. And it inspired his younger brother, too: in his turn John Nash would also become an accomplished artist whose watercolours,oil paintings and wood engravings displayed a similar love of England, its flora and fauna.
The Search for a field
Yet it was never in the family’s plan that the Nash boys should become artists. Paul was intended – like his maternal grandfather – for a career in the Royal Navy. After public school in London (an experience he hated), Nash was sent to a naval crammer in Greenwich. He failed his exams – he was a disaster at mathematics – and was left, aged 17, wondering what to do. When he proposed to his solicitor father that he earn his living “an artist or illustrator of some kind, no objection was raised”. In fact, to Nash’s delight, “everything was done to launch me on this precarious career”.
By 1910 Nash was at the Slade School of Art in Bloomsbury. His contemporaries included some of the most exciting young talents of the century: Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington among them. The life class was almost the raison d’etre of the Slade, but Nash struggled to master the human form. As he explained in Outline, “the human figure as represented by the models at the Slade did not interest me, I could make nothing of it”.
By then his parents had moved out of London, to the peace of a large country house at Iver Heath, a village now overshadowed by suburbia and the M25, but then firmly in the Buckinghamshire countryside. And as the young art student discovered the wonders of the Pre-Raphaelites, and visionary English artists such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer, he explored the fields and lanes around him. And he too became a visionary, one for whom landscape would reveal and contain everything that was spiritual and poetic in his life.
Although Nash continued to struggle as an artist, friends and mentors helped him to find his way. First another young Slade student, Claughton Pellew-Harvey, showed him how to fully appreciate the natural world. “As we walked in the fields,” Nash recalled in Outline, “Pellew began to interest me... I found he had a deep love for the country, particularly for certain of its features, such as ricks and stooks of corn. At first I was unable to understand an almost devotional approach to a hay stack and listened doubtfully to a rhapsody on the beauty of its form. Such objects and, indeed, the whole organic life of the countryside were still, for me, only the properties and scenes of my ‘visions’. Slowly, however, the beauty of certain things, trees particularly, began to dawn upon me.”
While drawing an oak tree near Iver Heath, Nash experienced an epiphany: “The spring sunlight struck the wide shoulders of the oak, glancing down its great limbs, which reflected the beams in a pale glow... I did not find it difficult to draw, as I had found the models at the Slade difficult to draw. An instinctive knowledge seemed to serve me... I could make these branches grow as I could never make the legs and arms of the models move and live.”
The full edition of this article appears in the latest edition of Countryfile magazine, out on newsstand on Friday 21st October. For more information about Countryfile magazine, see: www.countryfile.com
The Nash exhibition opens at the Tate Britain on Thursday 26th October and runs until 5th March 2017.
For more information: www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/paul-nash