Paul Nash’s time in Swanage marked the high point of his interest in Surrealism. He was immensely fond of the Dorset seaside town, the ‘extreme ugliness’ of which he found fascinating.
Nash (1889-1946) lived in and around Swanage between autumn 1934 and spring 1936. His time there overlapped with the start of an affair with the artist Eileen Agar. Introducing a guidebook to Swanage published in 1891, John Braye praised the seaside resort as ‘a "family place," where wives and daughters may safely be sent without being exposed to the extravagant vulgarities of many watering places’. By contrast, Nash’s time in the town some four decades later was marked by an impassioned jaunt of extramarital romance. In a letter to Agar on 18 July 1935, Nash wrote, ‘you are obviously very delightful but it's refreshing to find someone who will not rest upon being but overflows into attractive actions’.
The sea was an abiding source of interest to Nash. Living in Dymchurch along the Kent coast after the First World War, he had painted the vast sea wall there which prevents flooding on the Romney Marsh. His landscape imagery makes a thematic virtue of human-made structures and their interaction with organic patterns of hydrology, weather and untended undergrowth. The Stone Quay at Swanage was archetypal of this interaction, a landscape-scale concrete bank that shoulders the rolling waves. Works like Sea Wall and another masterpiece from the middle of Nash’s career, Winter Sea, display the artist’s abiding interest in waves formations.
In the nineteenth century, painters like Caspar David Friedrich and Gustave Courbet had looked out to sea and sought to capture the great expanse. Facing the subject square-on and reducing the composition to a series of horizontal lines suggesting shore, sea and sky, they simplified and aggrandised the subject. In Nash’s paintings of the sea, this process of clarification has progressed a stage further. The waves become frozen shards, a writhing mass captured in a carefully designed schema, even as the seascape at large retains the very same overtones of the sublime which characterised sea paintings of the previous century.