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Paul Nash (1889–1946) is not especially famous, but he is relatively well known for delving into the world of abstract landscape painting and conjuring what might be called a metaphysical or spiritual aura in his paintings, often set in the south of England.

Wood on the Downs

Wood on the Downs 1929

Paul Nash (1889–1946)

He is also known for his surrealist interpretations of the landscape together with his frank and emotive depictions of wartime destruction.

Totes Meer (Dead Sea)

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1

Paul Nash (1889–1946)

The Menin Road

The Menin Road 1919

Paul Nash (1889–1946)

Nash managed to make us look at the landscape in three different ways – as a picture of the countryside, as abstract art involving colour, shape, mood and line, and finally a place that has what might be called 'resonance'.

What is essential about looking at and thinking about any artist's work, is the action of being drawn towards their art in the first place, and that is what happens when I look at Nash's paintings. His is basically an uncomplicated view of the British landscape, yet he imbues his painting with what I interpret as love of the land, how the land itself has personality and character – a sense of place.

What makes us zone in on a particular artwork or artist? Why might we be attracted to a specific painting?

Firstly we may recognise the artist's name, we might gravitate towards an artist that we have heard of. However, if we analyse why this particular artist has punctured our consciousness, we could deduce that they are either famous, for a variety of reasons or that their work appeals directly to us in some particular way that we have responded to consciously or unconsciously.

Nocturne, Landscape of the Vale is a modest view, dashed off quickly in watercolour and pencil which Nash uses to delineate the land, scrub, sky and moon. He does this primarily as an exercise in information gathering, so that at a later stage he can perhaps use the drawing in a further work, adding depth, colour and shadow. The sketch is scratchy and quickly done, the moon is wonky and threatened by a stormy cloud. This intimate piece reveals Nash's working practice; no frills, but full of the traces (or trademark signs) of his main oeuvre; the shadows lurking under patches of trees, the dominant moon, the relationship of clusters of trees or rocks and their position within the composition. Look at more Nash and you will find these tell-tale signs of his passions, working method and the way he interprets the world. These are the building blocks of his compositions and they recur in his other paintings, talismans of his technique. 

Nash's landscape work is locked into a very British painting tradition that was consolidated in the eighteenth century. At that time artists started to investigate the possibilities of landscape as a separate genre. Initially, this developed naturally out of landowners wanting a record of their wealth through the joint portrayal of people and property.

Mr and Mrs Andrews

Mr and Mrs Andrews about 1750

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788)

In Gainsborough's early, modest painting of Mr and Mrs Andrews we see a couple 'at home' in their domain. In later life, Gainsborough remarked: 'I'm sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village, where I can paint Landskips and enjoy the fag End of life in quietness and ease.'

The Pass of Saint Gotthard, Switzerland

The Pass of Saint Gotthard, Switzerland 1803–1804

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851)

Turner managed to turn his love of discovering the countryside into commissioned work, and throughout his life he documented a variety of landscapes in watercolour. He travelled all over this Great Britain painting country seats with imposing architecture and also wild spaces. Abroad he created sketches and paintings of his journeys, including work inspired by the great pilgrim destination of Rome, and images of the places he visited on the way.

The Arch of Constantine, Rome

The Arch of Constantine, Rome c.1835

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851)

Heidelberg

Heidelberg c.1844-5

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851)

Travel provided the opportunity to hone his observation skills and focus on his private creative world. Quick drying and easy to transport, watercolour was a natural medium for him.

In contrast, Constable developed a method of using oils outdoors, his famous sky and cloud works have the veracity of the Impressionist moment and the impasto of the medium of oil. Like Nash, he identified strongly with specific places – both his Suffolk home and later Hampstead figure in his oeuvre.

Study of Clouds

Study of Clouds 1821

John Constable (1776–1837)

Constable and Turner used both oil and watercolour, but someone like Francis Towne (1739/1740–1816), for example, focused almost his entire efforts on watercolour. Renowned as a tricky and unpredictable medium it requires the paint to be in an active fluid state in order to perform in both a controlled and a chaotic manner. Its character is both delicate and translucent. The secret is to possess the skill to conjure the balance between the fragile, transparent elements and know instinctively how much water to use to unlock the pigment from the gum Arabic, and then to let the process 'take off'.

The results are what we see in this simple little work by Nash – Nocturne, Landscape of the Vale. It is full of the zest of the moment, he has left his pencil workings like the remains of a febrile calligraphic text and incorporated these into the overall result. They underpin the structure but hover in the background of the patches of overlaid graduated colour, suggesting space, mood and atmosphere.

Norbert Lynton sums up Nash when he wrote the following in his essay 'Landscape as experience and vision', in the 1993 collection Towards a New Landscape:

Nash's first works had people in them, bloodless creatures in the Pre-Raphaelite vein. Then landscape could stand for bodies, Whittenham Clumps for example, round and full. But that passed too and there is nothing sensuous about the landscapes that followed. His gardens are haunted; his seas are dead even when they are not made of broken warplanes, his landscapes speak of the coming apocalypse when they do not suggest it has already done its work, leaving nature to wind up her work. Like Blake and other Romantics, he looks forward by looking back. His art is not about the past but rather about what will be; its mode refers us to a dreamed, lost glory.

Liz Rideal, artist and writer

Did you know?
  • Nash was one of the most individual British artists of his time – he celebrated the English countryside tradition while influenced by European modernism
  • His younger brother, John Northcote Nash, was also an artist
  • In 1935, commissioned by John Betjeman, Paul Nash wrote the Shell guide to Dorset