Paul NashTate Britain, London, until 5 March.

When, in his 1943 book British Romantic Artists, John Piper included a painting by Paul Nash, Nash objected. ‘Romantic art, what is that?’ he responded. ‘Constable, Steer, Sickert Romantic painters?… when all is said I do not like the word Romantic applied to that which in its best and truest expression in England should be called Poetic.’

Nash was certainly influenced formatively by artists generally regarded as Romantic – Blake, Rossetti, Palmer and even Edward Lear – and there    is naturally a strong literary association with them. This exhibition, the largest in a generation, has the advantage of being based on the Tate’s Nash archive which has a great deal of his writing of which the in-house curators have made good use.

If there is a poet whose work Nash’s pictures embody it is Gerard Manley Hopkins whose concept of ‘inscape’ to describe the character of a natural scene matches Nash’s of ‘genius loci’ in which he perceived an ‘imprisoned spirit’ and ‘the source, the motive power’ of a place. It is that spirit that, arguably, all of Nash’s work seeks. It has been too easy to summarise Nash’s career as two world wars and some landscapes in between, but that ignores the many excursions that made him a truly important painter.

There was something mystical about the arrangement first of nature and then of objects and objects’ construction that fascinated Nash all his life, along with an abiding yearning to virtually fly. At the start of the exhibition is Nash’s Blake-like Vision at Evening, a watercolour of 1911 which has a female face as the moon hovering over the Buckinghamshire countryside; at the end of it, before his death in 1946 at only 57, are the moons, suns and cosmic orbs still casting their spells over English nature.

There was no thought of becoming an artist in Nash’s childhood. His parents wanted him to join the navy but he failed the entrance exams, and training to be ‘an illustrator of some kind’ was a fall-back. He studied lithography, but was soon disillusioned with the world of posters and show-cards and more interested in writing poetry. He dropped out of the Slade because he couldn’t draw figures well.

He painted the trees that surrounded his family home at Iver Heath, especially at night when they took on beguiling new personalities under the ubiquitous moon. ‘O dreaming trees, sunk in a swoon of sleep,’ he wrote in a poem of 1909, ‘What have ye seen in these mysterious places?’ His paintings were being noticed and after a successful exhibition with   his younger brother John in 1913 he was accepted into the pre-war artists’ coterie of Roger Fry and Duncan Grant.

Paul Nash, Blue House on the Shore, 1930-1. Oil on canvas / Tate
Paul Nash, Blue House on the Shore, 1930-1. Oil on canvas / Tate

But Nash had been woken from his spectral watercolour world first by falling in love and then by the First World War. A few months after marrying the suffragist Margaret Odeh in 1914 he joined the Artists’ Rifles, but even in the devastation of the Ypres Salient through which he marched, he wrote to Margaret of nature forcing its way through the desolation, nightingales singing. ‘One can’t think which is the more absurd,’ he wrote, ‘War or Nature’. He took to oils for the first time, his brush strokes suddenly urgent and ferocious, and became an official war artist.

In the monumental Menin Road he was commissioned to do, the exhibition would have us believe that the spiky shards of trees standing out of the mud represent tombstones for the human dead. Just as likely is that they are the stoical guardians of this transformed place whose restoration they will eventually oversee, as in We are making a new world of a few months earlier in which melancholy stumps crowd together to reach out of the diabolical green slime into a pale blue sky.

Nash was a tyro painter in 1914 and emerged transformed in 1918, as most survivors did, especially artists. ‘Thenceforth the whole savour of living, and the nature of my work, seemed directly affected,’ he wrote in the unpublished version of his autobiography, Outline. ‘I was launched into a turbulent sea where the dramatic adventures of life and art were breaking anew.’ He suffered with depression and from post-traumatic stress disorder. Still clinging to the English landscape, he looked for a style. There are hints of Cubism, Vorticism and Abstractism, and stimulated by the sea at Dymchurch in Kent his stark Winter Sea began as a sketch in 1925 that was finally resolved as perhaps his most powerful oil painting twelve years later. Through those years he and Margaret travelled the Mediterranean and, inspired by de Chirico, he embraced surrealism – the mysterious  Blue House on the Shore of 1931 comes from one of these trips – and the geometric personalities of architecture became a feature of his work.

 Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), 1940-41.Oil on canvas, Support: 1016 x 1524 mm, frame: 1170 x 1680 x 97 mm. Tate

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), 1940-41.Oil on canvas, Support: 1016 x 1524 mm, frame: 1170 x 1680 x 97 mm. Tate

Nash began to bring landscapes into this studio as still lifes, and the displacement of objects that changes their nature fascinated him. The exhibition has a remarkable find from the period, a wood, ivory and stone abstract construction called Moon Aviary which had been lost since 1943 and found recently in pieces in a cardboard box; it is based on Mansions of the Dead, a 1932 watercolour shown nearby.

Showing in Recent Tendencies in British Painting at Tooth’s Gallery in 1931 he realised that he was not alone in striving for new inspiration; he formed a group called Unit One including John Armstrong, Edward Burra, Tristram Hillier, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, declaring in a letter to The Times that they were ‘the expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for that thing which is recognised as peculiarly of today…’ Within two years Unit One had broken up. Nash felt divorced from his beloved countryside, an affinity rekindled by moving to Wiltshire. When his second tour as a war artist came around in 1940, Nash’s preoccupation with flight and surreal eye take on a mordant nature and hark back to his earlier experiences: the wreckage of war planes adding   to the landscape and the mass grave of German aircraft in Totes Meer in 1940-41 being an uncanny evocation of Winter Sea. Even his most famous painting, Battle of Britain of 1941, in which the turmoil in the sky contrasts with the stillness of the earth beneath, reaches back to the lyrical Mackerel Sky of 1917.

The exhibition points to Paul Nash’s international importance, but instead it reveals the complexity of a great British artist of the twentieth century, one who despised conflict but responded positively to it twice, and felt lost without it.

Simon Tait is a journalist, author and critic, former arts correspondent of The Times and editor of Arts Industry magazine.

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