|Rex Whistler, Girl with Red Rose, 1935|
We remember Nash not just as a war artist but as the quintessential painter of the world wars. The art collection of the Imperial War Museum is practically built around his vast canvases from the Great War, while 'Battle of Britain' is revered as one of the most striking paintings of the 1939-45 conflict. Nash's feeling for place and love of symbolism suited him for the job, but when he joined the Artists' Rifles in late 1914 there was no indication of what he would become.
Indeed, he spent more than two years in the south of England, training as an infantry officer - and meeting Edward Thomas in the process - before embarking for France with his regiment. Life in the trenches has come to dominate our collective memory of World War One, but the front lines were the equivalent of the coal face in a mine; a colossal effort went into manufacturing weapons and ammunition, training men and transporting everything and everyone to the right place at the right time.
The war, Nash wrote to his wife Margaret in March 1917, 'has become a habit so confirmed, so inevitable, it has its grip on the world just as surely as spring or summer.'
The battlefield seemed to Nash, when he finally arrived, a place of strange beauty:
|Paul Nash, 1918|
This opinion was to change dramatically when he returned to Flanders as a war artist in the autumn, and witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele. That he had not fought in the battle was down to a mixture of luck and strength of will. In May, shortly before a Big Push, he had the good fortune to fall into a trench in the dark, injuring himself sufficiently to be invalided home. He had been sending sketches of the front lines home and now he seized the opportunity to persuade the authorities that he should be appointed Official War Artist and sent back to France in that capacity.
Nash had on his side a formidable weapon: the persuasive and determined Margaret. John Buchan, author of 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' and now Minister for Information, acquiesced, and within a few months Nash had risen from the ranks of minor British artists to become a household name. He also, incidentally, secured the release of his brother John from service on the front lines, and the two of them spent much of 1918 painting scenes of devastation in the green hills of the Chilterns, with the British and Canadian governments footing the bill.
|Paul Nash, We are Making a New World, 1918|
|Rex Whistler, dining room at Plas Newydd, 1936-7|
Laurence wrote of his elder brother that he was 'not of this age', and indeed he does seem a strange, old-fashioned figure, painting murals for aristocratic clients as if he were living in the 18th century rather than the 20th. In 1936 he was commissioned by the Marquess of Anglesey to paint his dining room at Plas Newydd, and duly produced a glorious set of murals that mirror and transform the view of Snowdonia from the opposite windows.
|Rex Whistler, Self Portrait, 1940|
It is worth comparing Whistler's career with that of Eric Ravilious. Both became fascinated by mural painting as students, the former at the Slade and the latter at the Royal College of Art, and both launched their careers with murals. This was thanks in good measure to the legendary Henry Tonks (Paul Nash's former teacher), who chose Whistler to decorate the underground dining room at what is now Tate Britain. The success of these murals, which were finished in 1928 and can still be seen today, was the catalyst for the commissioning of the Morley College murals a year later; the success of these made the reputations of Ravilious and Edward Bawden.
The careers of the three artists had certain parallels; Whistler and Bawden both did work for Shell, while Ravilious and Whistler made designs for Wedgwood and all three were prodigious book illustrators. Socially, however, they moved in very different circles, and while Ravilious and Bawden chose to live simply in Essex, Whistler lived the high life, painting portraits of Cecil Beaton and the Sitwells and murals for stately homes.
When the war came, Bawden and Ravilious were among the first wave of artists chosen to record the conflict. By mid-1940 over 200 names had been considered, including Whistler's, which was apparently marked on the official list with a 'No'. His first inclination had been to volunteer for the army and, without a persuasive alternative, he now joined the Welsh Guards and began training as a tank commander.
|Lieutenant Whistler (centre) & Cromwell tank crew 1944|
An artist at war, Whistler painted and sketched many of his fellow soldiers but only saw action once. With his platoon he was driving through the outskirts of Caen when his tank became caught up in wire, then came under machine gun fire. He jumped down and ran to the nearest tank to explain the situation and give orders, but as he started back to his own tank a mortar exploded, killing him instantly. If Kenneth Clark's ambition had been to protect artists from harm then he had, in this instance, failed.
'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream' is available now from the Mainstone Press and all good bookshops.