William Orpen and John Masefield

William Orpen and John Masefield were both born in 1878. Unlike many of the young poets and artists who are currently being celebrated during this centenary, these two middle aged gentleman were of a more traditional generation, more cautious, conservative and wiser.

They met in the Somme during the summer months of 1917. Orpen had all the fine trappings afforded to an Official War Artist (car, driver, guide, fine hotel, funds). Masefield, in comparision and much to his distaste, had a rather meagre time of it.

Orpen wrote in his notes from An Onlooker in France:

“Most of these summer months John Masefield was working on the Somme battlefields. He preferred to work there on the spot. He would get a lift out from Amiens in the morning on a motor or lorry, work all day by himself at some spot like La Boisselle, and walk back to the bridge at Albert and look out for a lift back to Amiens. If we worked out in that direction, on the way home our eye was always kept on the look-out for him; but it never appeared to matter to him if he got back or not. I don’t believe he minded where he was as long as he could ponder over things all alone.”

Masefield wrote to his wife with some kind words about Orpen after he acknowledged a lift in the artist's ‘noble rich car’.

"“It is roll upon roll of rather gentle downland but mile after mile of it, wherever you look, is blown into holes, mostly very big deep holes…...”Taken from Constance Babington Smith's biography about Masefield: A Life.

Paul Nash and William Orpen

It would be reasonable to assume that Paul Nash and William Orpen knew each other.

They were both taught by Henry Tonks and Nash certainly had huge respect for Orpen. It is documented that when a friend visited Paul Nash’s home in Oxford he saw Orpen’s book Outline of Art on his desk.

They had different personalities and artistic styles and navigated their way through opposite social circles. Their love for women (both had flamboyant and colourful love lives) is another connection but ultimately they were of different generations with different visions. Their names, however, will always be entwined as official war artists of the First World War.

John Masefield and Paul Nash

Nash was eleven years Masefield’s junior. Did they ever meet? They had many acquaintances in common from Rupert Brook to Roger Fry. Nash was a well-read man who loved poetry. I’m almost certain that he’d have read much of Masefield’s work before and after the First World War.

The true connection was the landscapes of Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Lollingdon Hill is about 3 miles from Wittenham Clumps. Nash had already painted these distinctive Berkshire Clumps in 1912, two years before Masefield moved to Lollingdon Farm. Masefield could see the Clumps from the top of Lollingdon Hill and in winter he’d have seen them from Lollingdon Farm house.

Masefield loved the Berkshire Downs and Nash also painted an oil painting titled Berkshire Downs.

The Masefields moved to a house called Hill Crest on Boars Hill near Oxford in 1917. It had a brilliant view of the Berkshire Downs which delighted Constance, John’s wife. They lived there until about 1933. Less than 10 years later Paul Nash visited his friend Hilda Harrisson at Boars Hill and the view from her garden of Wittenham Clumps is one that he painted again and again.