The War Artists

An Overview of Paul Nash

I have always been interested in the work of Paul Nash and co-produced (with Christopher Baines) the website which connects the artist with the landscape of the Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire. As recently as six years ago Nash was not well recognised. He has now become one of the most well-known War Artists of his generation.

It is well documented that the war completely transformed Paul Nash and the way he painted. Before 1914 he was a romantically minded, passionate and driven young man. He served with the Hampshire Regiment in 1917 and his descriptions of the landscapes of France at this time were poetic and light hearted. He was a prolific and good writer.

Nash writing to his wife soon after arriving in France.“The morning filled with sunshine made everything look full of colour and alive. The larks were singing and a fresh wind made walking very refreshing. Never have I seen such curious beauty...”

As he travelled north towards Belgium he began to note changes in the landscape. It was in April 1917 that he finally experienced life in the Front Line, albeit for a small period of time.

"I feel very happy these days, in fact, I believe I am happier in the trenches than anywhere out here. It sounds absurd but life has a greater meaning here and a new zest, and beauty is more poignant.”
"Oh these wonderful trenches at night, at dawn, at sundown.”

His earlier zest and vigour started to wane as he became worried about the effects of war back in England with the great shortage of food.

"Imagine a wide landscape flat and scantily wooded and what trees remain blasted and torn, naked and scarred and riddled The ground for miles around furrowed into trenches, pitted with yawning holes in which water lies still and cold or heaped in mounds of earth, tangles of rusty wire, tin plates, stakes, sandbags and all the refuse of war.”
The Wire by Paul Nash
Wire: Watercolour, chalk, ink on paper © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2705)

Surrounded by death and decay he started to come to terms with his own mortality. He wrote to his wife saying:

"But if I am hit, then it does not matter, and I can think of you at the last and forever after till we meet again.”

Following an injury that kept him out of service for most of 1917 he campaigned hard to become an offical war artist and finally got his wish in November 1917 when he returned to France and Belgium.

"Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land.”

"The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.”

He witnessed the tragic aftermath of conflict upon the landscape. His depictions of broken trees and bleak, sombre sketches were nervously received by those who had commissioned him. A century on they show us the truth of what war brought to the landscapes of France and Belgium.