|Paul Nash's grave in Langley|
The pillared grave he shares with his wife Margaret is a monument both modern and classical beside the mellow red brick of the wall that surrounds his family's ancestral plot. He lies close to them, connected under the earth, but apart, and watched over by a bird that might be a falcon out of Ancient Egypt. Is this the peregrine of 'Landscape from a Dream', placed here to keep an eye on the artist? Nash liked to tell people that death resembled flowers drifting in the sky. He'd experienced a vision, when he was 21 and his mother had just died after a long and distressing mental illness, of a woman's face floating in the evening sky. Or that's what he said, at any rate, and that's what he painted.
Then he abandoned the human face and figure for woods and trees, often with a bird or a flock of birds flying around. He felt very strongly, throughout his life, the personality of trees, of things and of places. Certain places seized his imagination. At Dymchurch in Kent, in the early 1920s, he painted and sketched the sea wall and the sea over and over again. More often, though, he moved restlessly from place to place, looking, sketching, trying out ideas. He and Margaret were almost constantly on the move, sometimes together, sometimes apart, and often in the midst of crisis.
And, strange as it may seem, Nash was at his most productive when life was at its darkest - in the years following his mother's death, and following his father's, and at moments when his own life hung by a thread. Whatever the debates about modernity and Britishness, about abstraction, surrealism and the rest, Nash was motivated by an awareness of and terror of death. He spent his life coming to terms with mortality, in his strange paintings of tree stumps and ancient stones and heaps of felled wood, using the language of natural forms to explore the processes of which, like it or not, we are part.
|Swan Song, 1928/9|
In an age of omnipresent images it's hard to accept that we cannot rely on visual evidence for Nash's character - or even appearance. Instead we have to dig out old books and read both his descriptions of the world and other people's descriptions of him. He loved Henry Purcell and American jazz, Botticelli and the cartoonists of the New Yorker; the American humourist James Thurber said of Nash, 'At the time there was no one in England, or anywhere else outside the US, who knew our comic art so well, or appreciated it so heartily.’
|Event on the Downs, 1935|
|Parkland near Nash's family home at Iver Heath|