|Paul Nash, Wood on the Downs, 1930 (Aberdeen Art Gallery)|
A clump of beeches rises in a sculpted wave over hills that roll and tumble like the sea. Nash loved the ancient uplands, and his paintings of Iron Age hillforts, trackways and sacred sites span a region from the Dorset coast to the northern tip of the Chilterns. It was during a 1924 visit to Ivinghoe Beacon, that great hump of chalk overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury, that he first discovered this wood, describing it as ‘an enchanted place in the hills girdled by wild beech woods, dense and lonely places where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dryad.’
Today the Ridgeway and Icknield Way paths meet nearby, making this a landmark for long distance ramblers and a destination for daytrippers, but even in the 1920s people were visiting the hills and woods in increasing numbers. A national preoccupation with prehistory had been growing since the Victorian era and, in the aftermath of the Great War, books like H. J. Massingham’s Downland Man (1926) encouraged readers to explore the landscape of the ancient past. As aerial photography offered a new perspective on earthworks and monuments, the rise of motor transport turned sites like Ivinghoe Beacon into tourist attractions.
‘Millions of motorists must have passed the place,’ Nash noted wryly when he described this painting, adding ‘It is on the main road on the top of the hill. I have wanted to do something about it for years.’
The opportunity came in the last month of his annus horribilis , when Jack offered (or was persuaded) to drive him.
‘It was a lovely day for the drive,’ Nash remarked, ‘But devilish cold for drawing when we got to the hills…. The woods in the hollow below were crowded with wild pigeons which alternately sailed in the clouds over the tops of the trees or settled in the branches where they sat so thick the woods looked like monstrous orchards bursting into bloom.’
He sketched directly onto canvas, noting the colours on a separate drawing, then painted the oil in his studio to his own design. One critic found the pleasure to be found in the picture ‘austere’, adding ‘It is a sort of higher mathematics of painting that Mr Nash pursues.’
We can imagine the artist chuckling over this remark. As a boy he had been set for a career in the Royal Navy, but failed to pass the necessary entrance exams. There were plans to make him an architect, or set him to work in a bank, but the same weakness held him back:
‘Although I appeared to possess a good average intelligence,’ he acknowledged. ‘I was extremely deficient in mathematical calculation… Actually I was capable of quite complicated methods of computation to prove my sums. But the answers were fantastically wrong… I have seen mathematical teachers reduced to a sort of awe by my imbecility.’
Awe of a very different kind is inspired by this painting. Simultaneously abstract, architectural and descriptive, it gives perfect expression to Nash's extraordinary sense of place.
This is an excerpt from 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream', which will be available in early November from the Mainstone Press. Join us for the official launch at Henry Sotheran's bookshop in Piccadilly, on November 15th (more details here).