Paul Nash 1889-1946

Provenance

Miss Barbara Nash.

Gifted by the above to Enid Levetus, and thence by descent to the present owner

Exhibitions

London, Tate Gallery, Paul Nash: paintings and watercolours, November - December 1975, no. 135

Literature

Andrew Causey,1980 Paul Nash, cat. no. 741, pl. 253

Norman Reid, Paul Nash Paintings and Watercolours, Tate Gallery Catalogue, London, 1975

Paul Nash (1889-1946) was born in London, and spent much of his childhood in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, before studying at the Slade School of Art, London under the infamous Professor of Drawing, Henry Tonks, alongside an exceptionally talented pre-war generation of artists which included Stanley Spencer, C. R.W. Nevinson, David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington and Edward Wadsworth. He served in the Artists' Rifles during World War I until he was invalided home following a fall, and returned tothe front as an Official War Artist. He was a member of the London Group from 1914, co-founded Unit One with Ben Nicholson in 1933 and was a founder of the Modern English Watercolour Society. From the early 1930s he was a leading proponent of British Surrealism and organised the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, and during World War II he worked again as an Official War Artist. He died in 1946 in Boscombe, Hampshire, succumbing to the severe asthma that afflicted him for most of his adult life.

Exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in 1932 and again in 1933 as ‘The River at Rye’, this watercolor is a view southwards of the Rother estuary in East Sussex, a curious landscape of a river weaving through fields painted yellow punctuated by industrial buildings is seen through a set of wooden swings. An ordinary scene is rendered almost surreal through the structural emphasis on the stillness of the children’s swings, the human landscape positively absent of human activity. The architectonic swings instead take on a presence in the painting usually reserved for human figures. ‘The probability is that [Nash] has the mathematician’s rather than the painter’s mind,’ The Times critic suggested in its review of his 1932 exhibition, underscored by Nash's deliberate inclusion of pencil grid lines.

'River' reveals the significance of two influences upon Nash’s work during this period of his career: a fascination with photography and an increasing interest in continental Surrealism. It was Margaret Nash who gave him his first camera, and she describes how it became ‘his new eye …’. During the 1930s Nash experimented with photographic angles and framing devices in his painting, exploring the disconcerting and surreal effect of unexpected cropping, and the disjuncture of unusual or inexplicable angles. The view down over the river is certainly difficult to understand - we feel we are looking down over the estuary below from a ledge but the view feels curiously flattened so that river, fields, sea and sky appear as on one plain. Nash paints 'River' with his usual palette from the late 1920s and 1930s - a muted palette of light, earthy yellow, pale blue and dusky pinks.

The uncanny quality of the children's swing placed seemingly without explanation in an uninhabited landscape speaks to the influence of Surrealism upon this phase of Nash's career, and particularly the work of French Surrealist artist Jean Lurçat (1892-1966). During the 1930s Nash painted overtly surrealist scenes of the shipyard at Rye, exploring the suggestive forms of marine and industrial objects seen without context as uncanny, lifeless found objects. In 'River' the unnaturally still swings become a Surrealist object, perhaps a testament to the so-called 'Lost Generation' of those who survived World War One. Nash's landscapes from the 1930s of quintessentially English countryside views inhabited with surreal objects, such as 'Equivalents for the Megaliths' and 'Landscape from a Dream' in the Tate Collection, are among some of his most iconic works.