British painter Paul Nash (1889–1946) ambushed the world with his war art, offering a radical, surrealist look at the bleak realities of combat. Nash covered both world wars, capturing butchered and broken landscapes but never including human carnage. Instead, he showed the charred earth, shattered trees, and twisted heaps of downed fighter planes abandoned once the battle moved on. Simple, yet stunning, his work stirred emotions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Paul Nash was born in London, England, on May 11, 1889, the oldest of three children born to William and Caroline Nash. His younger brother, John, also became an artist and his younger sister, Barbara, became a noted gardener. Their father, William, worked as a lawyer in London until 1901, when he moved the family to the Buckinghamshire countryside. William Nash hoped that the change of scenery would help his depressed wife, but within a few years, she was spending long periods of time in mental institutions. Caroline Nash died in 1910.
As a boy, Nash enjoyed living in the countryside and wandered the woods, rolling hills, and cornfields to escape trouble at home. He suffered from asthma and was terrible at sports, and he also struggled with mathematics. School was a “long and complicated purgatory,” he would recall in years later, according to Times Literary Supplement writer Alice Spawls. Because his grandfather had been a captain in the Royal Navy, the family hoped that Nash would follow in his footsteps. Attempting to please them, he sat for the military entrance exam but failed the section testing his knowledge of mathematics.
In 1906, Nash enrolled at Chelsea Polytechnic, then moved to Bolt Court two years later to attend the London County Council School of Photo-engraving and Lithography. This school was known for teaching commercial artists and illustrators, training them in the techniques for creating posters and signs. While there, Nash caught the attention of English painter William Rothenstein, who encouraged him to attend the Slade School of Fine Art at the University of London. Nash studied at Slade from 1910 to 1911 but quit because he felt uninspired by the instruction he received. The feeling was mutual; in the opinion of Slade's renowned teacher, Henry Tonks, Nash showed little promise.
Undaunted, Nash continued his artistic explorations independently. He studied nightscapes and trees and regularly visited an uncle living in the countryside near the Wittenham Clumps, a pair of grassy, wooded hills located in Little Wittenham, Berkshire, England. He painted and sketched the trees and hills of Wittenham Clumps over and over during his lifetime, always finding something new to portray. In 1912, Nash had his first exhibition at the Carfax Gallery in London. This show consisted of drawings, water colors, and pencil-chalk-wash pieces depicting scenes from nature. Rather than worrying about getting the topography exact in these works, he concentrated on capturing the “spirit” of the place by playing with light and shade.
In 1913, Nash became engaged to Margaret Odeh, and they married in December of 1914. Great Britain had entered World War I only months before, and Nash now enlisted, volunteering in the Artists Rifles regiment of the British Army Reserve. The Artists Rifles were a regular fighting regiment, and the unit saw combat in France. They were not war artists, but soldiers who had an appreciation of fine art, and in between skirmishes, many of these men sketched pictures. In 1917, while the Artists Rifles was stationed on the Western Front, Nash fell into a trench while sketching. Having broken his ribs, he was sent home to London to recuperate. While he was away, most of the regiment was wiped out during the Battle of Messines, in West Flanders, Belgium.
It was during this home stay that Nash developed the ideas in his battlefront sketchbook and adapted them as fullscale drawings. After he showed them around, members of the War Artists' Advisory Committee conscripted Nash as an official war artist. This was a new program and the idea was that artists would be sent to war zones and paint sanitized, patriotic images of battle that could inspire support for the war back home and also boost morale and keep alive the pre-war optimism regarding social change. Nash was unable to produce suitable images, however; when he returned to active duty in November of 1917, he felt guilt over the loss of his comrades and became stressed by the constant shellfire that shook the ground as he hunkered down in muddy trenches. Instead of glorifying the war, he produced dark art that offered an angry anti-war message.
After World War I ended in November of 1918 and Nash returned home, he suffered from both post-traumatic stress disorder and lung trouble. During the war, his asthmatic lungs had been further damaged by gas. Still reeling from his experience, he turned to his sketchbook for images with which to make new paintings. There was now a marked shift in his work: Before the war, he had produced gentle, visionary landscapes, but after the war, his work turned bleak and haunting. In 1918, Nash's work was featured in an exhibit titled “The Void of War” and staged at the Leicester Galleries in London. These images showed mud and annihilation as depicted through a charred, shellpocked earth. One of the most striking images was a drawing called “Wire,” which featured an empty battlefield and grey skies. Smoke rises in the distance and barbed wire lies tangled in the midst of a stretch of earth pounded by bombs. A splintered tree with no top is positioned in the foreground. There are no signs of life in the image; not even a leaf is left hanging on the tree. Through this work, Nash conveyed what the earth looks like after a war.
The Leicester Galleries exhibition featured an equally apocalyptic painting, Nash's “We Are Making a New World” (1918). This surrealist piece featured a barren landscape of skeletal, charred tree stumps standing amidst a never-ending plain of bombed-out earth. The sun rises over the scene of devastation and it is clear that a forest used to grow there before soldiers arrived. The forms in “We Are Making a New World” are very angular and show a cubist influence. Nash's piece was designed to inspire its viewers to consider the question “What are we doing to ourselves?”
In 1919, Nash produced another desolate scene, “The Menin Road,” which was originally going to be titled “A Flanders Battlefield.” Here he captured on canvas another fragment of lost earth, but in this case, the shell holes have filled with stagnant rainwater. A discarded helmet floats in a rain puddle and gray concrete blocks and tangles of corrugated iron dominate the scene. In “The Menin Road” viewers observe two soldiers in the distance, making their way down a “road” that cannot serve as a road any longer. From the sky, two beams of light shine downward, bursting through the clouds like sunlight, much as painters show the “divine light” of God shining down through the clouds in religious scenes. For Nash, the war carnage left behind was the opposite of a divine presence.
Britain's national Imperial War Museum purchased both “The Menin Road,” and “We Are Making a New World,” putting them on permanent display. Toby Thacker, in his book British Culture and the First World War, noted that British novelist Arnold Bennett wrote the exhibition catalog for Nash's war work, stating that “Lieutenant Nash has seen the Front simply and largely. He has found the essentials of it—that is to say, disfigurement, danger, desolation, ruin, chaos—the little figures of men creeping devotedly and tragically over the waste…. They seem to me to have been done in a kind of rational and dignified rage…. Their supreme achievement is that in their sombre and dreadful savagery they are beautiful.”
Over time, Nash returned to producing conventional landscapes capturing a rural charm similar to that of his pre-war work. “Behind the Inn,” painted around 1920, shows a view of trees and an outbuilding as seen from the Red Lion pub near Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire, England. The colors in this piece were brighter, offering a happier tone. Although he also took up wood engraving, Nash was not at all well. In 1921, he had a breakdown and spent a week in the hospital where doctors diagnosed him as experiencing “war strain.”
In 1922, Nash and his wife moved to Dymchurch, a coastal town in Dorset County, England. Here, he painted melancholy seascapes, including “Winter Sea,” which showed Cubist influences. “Winter Sea” depicted sharp slivers of black ice. The angular waves—frozen in place—were meant to show how life could be carefree and fluid at times, then turn petrified and stilted.
In 1924, Nash began teaching at the Design School of the Royal College of Art. In 1931, he visited the United States, representing Great Britain on an international jury for a Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh. Before he left for North America, Nash had received a camera from his wife, and he took numerous photographs during his visit. Just as he did in his paintings, Nash captured mostly landscapes and few humans. He now became a photographer and often worked from both sketches and photos to make his paintings.
In 1932, Nash's essay collection Room and Book appeared, its focus on contemporary design. In 1933, he co-founded Unit One, a group of sculptors, fine-art painters, and architects who delved into modernism, and they held one major group exhibition that toured England. As the 1930s played out, Nash moved into experimental territory, helping to modernize British art. He began injecting everyday objects into his landscapes so that they would take on new meanings and highlight internal conflicts in the world. His work became even more abstract and surreal during this time.
In 1940, Nash was appointed an official war artist again and accompanied the Royal Air Force. Stationed in England, he painted German warplanes, which were always flying overhead. Once again, his images struck an emotional chord with viewers. He painted his favorite quintessential British landscapes, then gunked them up with downed enemy planes. In one of his canvasses, a broken fighter plane sits in a sunset-lit cornfield. He also painted a crumpled German Messerschmitt that had crashed near Windsor Castle.
One of Nash's most famous World War II images was 1941's “Totes Meer (Dead Sea)” and depicted an aeronautical junkyard of tangled Luftwaffe planes that had been shot down. Nash personified the wreckage; the wings seemed to bob up and down like a sea of carnage. He wanted to reproduce “Totes Meer” on a postcard and drop it on a flyover of Germany. His last war painting, “Battle of Germany” (1944), was a highly abstract depiction of a bombing raid showing a still city lit by moonlight and awaiting the bombs that were sure to come.
Nash died on July 11, 1946, in Boscombe, Dorset, England, at age 57. The cause of death was heart failure brought on by his severe asthma and war-damaged lungs. In the years after his death, he was recognized as one of the most important Western artists of the early 20th century. Highly original, Nash loved nature and was thus rooted in the tradition of England's classic landscape artists. He also added a surrealist touch, thus paving the way for British modernism to evolve.
Thacker, Toby, British Culture and the First World War: Experience, Representation, and Memory, Bloomsbury, 2014.
Webb, Brian, and Peyton Skipwith, Design: Paul Nash and John Nash, Antique Collectors' Club, 2006.
New Criterion, February 2017, Christie Davies, “Paul Nash,” pp. 53–54.
New Statesman, October 28–November 3, 2016, Michael Prodger, “Old Gods, New Monsters,” pp. 40–43.
Sunday Times (London, England), November 6, 2016, Waldemar Januszczak, “A Very Great Briton,” pp. 10–11.
Times Literary Supplement, January 11, 2017, Alice Spawls, “Independent Life.”□