A crisis of brilliance as mysticism meets futurism: the art of Paul Nash

The Arts Society Salisbury’s May lecture was given by Dr David Haycock on The Art and Life of Paul Nash.
Nash was one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. He united the pastoral and mystical tradition embodied by English artists such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer, with the modern European movements of Futurism, Surrealism and Abstraction.

Dr Haycock, an established freelance art historian and curator, is best known for his 2009 book, A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War, one of whom was Nash, and so was able to draw on a wealth of knowledge for what proved a very interesting talk.

Nash was born in London in 1889 to a middle-class family and educated at St Paul’s.

Like his mother, he suffered from depression and claimed to see visions. He was accepted into The Slade School of Art, which at that time had become a key art scene under the leadership of Henry Tonks.

However, Nash struggled with drawing the human form and felt landscapes were more interesting and mysterious.

He was drawn to the standing stones at Avebury and especially to trees. His contemporaries included Ben Nicholson, Christopher Nevinson, and Dora Carrington.

Nash was idealistic and romantic. In 1911, he met Margaret Odeh who was to become his wife.

Unusually, he was recruited by the government to provide a record of the impact of WW1 and later WW2, with one condition – he was not allowed to show any dead bodies.

Nash voluntarily enlisted in 1914 and by 1917 was on the western front.

As a second-lieutenant, he was permitted to paint in his spare time. He felt that censorship prevented him from showing the true horrors of the war and so tried to convey these as metaphors through landscapes which reflected his own bitterness at the war.

Having previously worked in watercolours, in 1918, he was commissioned to make an oil painting for the first time. The Menin Road. He was also a very successful wood engraver.

In 1924, he suffered a mental breakdown as memories of the war haunted him like it did to so many others. His health was poor thanks to asthma which had probably been aggravated by inhaling gas in the trenches.
Throughout the 1930s, his paintings became increasingly abstract and surrealist.

By 1939, he was again asked to be a war artist and was attached to the RAF to make accurate drawings of aircraft, but Nash saw them rather as slaying monsters with the result that the RAF did not really know what to make of his paintings.

In turn, he felt his images were wanted more as propaganda.

In one of his most famous paintings, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) he went to Oxford and painted images of dismantled aircraft pieces that resembled waves.

After the war, flowers became an inspiration for him, a famous example being Flight of the Magnolia, which was drawn in his garden.

Another painting, Eclipse of Sunflower, perhaps foresaw his own death in 1946.

In the last months of his life, he returned to drawing trees, the best example of which were probably the Wittenham Clumps.

He left behind a legacy of posters, ceramics, engravings for books, and thousands of watercolours.

The next Arts Society lecture is on June 13 and will be given by Jonathan Foyle on Lost Finishes in Historic Buildings.

This talk will explore the fashions of previous centuries and includes a recent personal discovery of national importance within the c15th century Guildhall of Stratford-upon-Avon… Shakespeare’s schoolroom.

For more information, visit: or search for The Arts Society Salisbury on Facebook.

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