Paul Nash: An Unlikely Mouthpiece for a Nation Destroyed

'I am no longer an artist…I am a messenger…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' - An exploration into a war artists life of letters, painting and social commentary.

by Kitty Atherton | 19 November 2020

Feeble, inarticulate, the commentary Nash imparted in a letter to his wife Margaret, in late 1917. The very words I would renounce when presented with the bleak, poetic and visionary landscapes of Paul Nash. Being enlightened by his post-war work originally, since Nash had taken residency in East Sussex; my home county, after being discharged. It was here that he produced the surreal isolated planes and ghostly seascapes, that seemed reflective of his mental state after his deposition to the Ypres Salient. These scenes, disturbing in their ‘surface’ tranquillity and permeated by dark symbolic undertones, could only reinforce my attentiveness to the work Nash produced in response to his time as an active soldier. As Simon Grant outlines, Nash had an awareness of mortality from a young age, arguably stemming from his illness’ as a child yet undoubtedly provoked by the premature death of his mother Caroline. Growing up in Buckinghamshire, Nash immersed himself in the historical sites local to him. In particular the Wittenham Clumps, an Iron-Age hill fort; and a source for much of his early landscape observations. 1910 saw the beginning of Nash’s lifetime devotion to the arts. He enrolled at the Slade school, and, whilst struggling with figural drawings, focused his attention on the poetry of William Blake, guiding him in his endeavour to explore the English countryside. It was St. Elois, on the Ypres Salient, that gave Nash the necessary stimulus to experiment with depictions of war. After being invalided for an injury, Nash spent time developing his technique. Works such as ‘Chaos Decoratif’ show early expressions of the vorticist movement; later celebrated in the works of Wyndham Lewis, an artist who equally resided in rural Sussex post-war.