All around Hare Hall the nightingales were singing. May had turned warm and in the lengthening evenings soldiers left their camp in the grounds of the Palladian mansion and went walking across the Essex countryside. For Corporal Edward Thomas, these brief forays into the local country were a tantalizing reminder of peacetime freedom and of the twenty years he had spent wandering southern England and Wales. Thomas now felt himself a captive, prevented by the responsibilities of his rank from leaving camp for more than a few hours, but life was not all bad. Having refused for years to countenance teaching as a profession he was enjoying the role of map-reading instructor, while he continued to write poetry in secret, disguising his verses as prose.
|Edward Thomas by John Wheatley (NPG)|
|Paul Nash 1918 (Tate)|
If this failure to connect has literature professors tearing their hair out, we shouldn’t imagine that Nash and Thomas enjoyed much more than a genial camaraderie. In some ways the two men were very different. Dear old Thomas, as Nash would later refer to him, was a tall and imposing countryman of forthright views, the son of an English mother and a Welsh father who never forgave him for spurning a career in the civil service. Instead Thomas had graduated from Oxford University in 1900 already married and with a son of his own, and determined to pursue his vocation as a writer. His life thereafter was a constant struggle to make ends meet, and the more reviews, articles and books he wrote, the unhappier he became. Despair drove him on occasion to contemplate suicide but he rallied each time and each time embarked on a fresh project with renewed vigour.
Often a project meant a journey, for Thomas was known during his lifetime not as a poet but as a critic who wrote eccentric, slightly awkward travel books. There are delights in each of his books of English and Welsh wanderings, but so intent was he on writing the required number of words as quickly as possible that he often larded the text with repetitive descriptions and lengthy quotes from minor poets. A rather misanthropic vision of London and its people can’t have helped his cause either, but his chief obstacle to success lay in writing for a readership that didn’t really exist yet. His politically engaged, acerbic, wry style would appeal more to the generations who came after him than to his own.
Like his other books, The South Country enjoyed modest success in 1909, but had become seminal reading twenty years later. In it, Thomas evokes the woods and roads, fields and villages of the South Downs, presenting us with a landscape at once ancient and contemporary. Against the timeless (and to Edwardian eyes, eternal) cycles of nature, he sets the dubious progress of human history. We see London suburbs devouring farmland and share the plight of a suburban man whose weekday office is so overshadowed by buildings that it seems to lie at the bottom of a deep pit. This man escapes as often as he can to labour in the fields, as Thomas himself travelled restlessly around the country in his rumpled tweeds, open to the lure of path, lane or Downland track.
‘The long white roads are a temptation,’ he wrote. ‘What quests they propose! They take us away to the thin air of the future or to the underworld of the past.’
As a boy Thomas had met a tramp on a riverbank and listened avidly to his tales, and ever after remained obsessed with wandering and wanderers. The roving nature writer Richard Jefferies was one of his heroes, while another was peripatetic author George Borrow, whose 1851 novel Lavengro offers a vision of England in which gypsies and other rootless souls roam country lanes and byways, free from the constraints of city life and Victorian morality. Money and status are of no concern to the narrator and chief protagonist, whose great achievement, by the end of the book, is to become a tinker; instead of marriage, the story ends with him living in a leafy dingle with a woman called Isopel, in a relationship that is never – and, we imagine, never will be – defined.
Underappreciated by Victorian readers, Lavengro began in the next century to acquire a cult following among undergraduates and office workers disillusioned with city life; by 1906, the Oxford University Press and Everyman’s Library had issued mass market editions and the cult of the wanderer was firmly established. Borrow was by this time long dead, but Edwardian urbanites who dreamt of the roving life found a new literary hero in William Henry Davies, a one-legged Welsh traveller and poet who in 1908 published The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp.
Even today the book makes eye-opening reading, with its cast of lowlifes and prostitutes, and it was only published after its author found a champion in Thomas himself. Davies was uncouth, wily and not averse to shocking sensitive literary types, but at the same time he was an authentic wild rover, an untutored author and poet who wrote from life. Thomas supported him professionally and financially, despite his own straitened circumstances, and on one occasion commissioned a local wheelwright to replace his wooden leg. To save Davies’ blushes, the order was marked ‘Curiosity cricket bat’.
Although the Super-Tramp had lost his foot trying to sneak a ride on an American train, his readers were keen to escape the railway system and explore the roads of Britain; the modern bicycle, fitted with the recently invented pneumatic tyres, made this possible. By 1910 there was so much interest in cycling that the Suffolk market town of Sudbury, birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough, was able to support nine bike shops including one, established in 1898 by HC Twitchett, that had an antique penny farthing on the roof. Evidently keeping up with the times, Twitchett’s shop also advertised itself as a Motor Garage offering Petrol and Repairs, but for now the bicycle held sway and at weekends Londoners explored the Home Counties in their thousands, visiting beauty spots, country inns and ancient monuments.
Thomas himself became a keen cyclist, setting off in March 1913 on a high-speed pilgrimage from London to Somerset and Coleridge’s former home in the Quantock Hills, and writing up his journey in the occasionally dazzling In Pursuit of Spring.
In striking contrast to these flamboyant oils, Paul Nash made a small drawing – one of his earliest – that was essentially an illustration to the pages of Borrow. At the time he was fascinated by Lavengro, noting later that ‘more than ever the adventures of the Heath and the open road became my romantic food.’ Attracted particularly to the vision of Lavengro and Isopel in the dingle, Nash sought out the most gypsyish models available in Chelsea, one of whom, Rupert Lee, was known as the Man from Mexico on account of his broad-brimmed hat and riding trousers, and preceded to draw them against the background of a dingle he had invented - with some difficulty, he admitted later, being ‘not well acquainted with dingles’.
|Paul Nash, Lavengro & Isopel in the Dingle, 1911/12 (Tate)|
Anyone who did not know Paul Nash well would have been forgiven for thinking his life so far had been easy. His father, William Harry Nash, was an amiable barrister from an old Buckinghamshire farming family, and Paul was born in 1889 into a comfortable middle class life. Initially he and his younger brother and sister, John and Barbara, were raised in Kensington, London, where they inhabited a top floor nursery and saw their mother Caroline for an hour in the evening. But Caroline, the daughter of a naval officer, suffered from anxiety that became progressively more acute, and when Paul was about twelve his father acted on medical advice and moved them all to the Buckinghamshire village of Iver Heath, where a six-bedroom house had been built on a quiet lane. Unfortunately this did not help Caroline Nash, whose mental condition deteriorated rapidly and relentlessly. To pay for her care the rest of the family often had to move elsewhere and rent out the house, and after a decade of constant distress she died, in 1910, at the age of forty-nine.
Throughout his teenage years Paul helped his father and protected his brother and sister from the worst, and the family remained close ever after. With so much upheaval in his life, it is not surprising that Nash did not shine at school. Destined for a career in the navy he was deterred by being, as he later put it, ‘extremely deficient at mathematical calculation.’ ‘Actually,’ he explained in his autobiography, Outline, ‘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 kind of awe by my imbecility.’
At a naval crammer the staff attempted to beat maths into him, but he failed the naval entrance exams nevertheless and quit St Paul’s – the same school Edward Thomas had left with such great expectations – with no prospects. Architecture was suggested as a career, but that required a grasp of maths, and then a bank – a bank! Nash began to feel he was ‘the victim of a ridiculous conspiracy which, because I was bad at figures, maliciously committed me to any calling wherein figures played an essential part.’ Instead, the eighteen year old proposed a career as an illustrator and to this his father rather surprisingly acquiesced.
|William Blake Richmond, The Crown of Peace|
|Elliott & Fry, WB Richmond, 1910|
Nash enrolled at Bolt Court, a school for commercial artists on Fleet Street, and it was there that he began to earn his family nickname of Lucky Paul; the school held a monthly sketch-club exhibition that was judged by a well known artist or designer, and when the portraitist William Rothenstein came along he gave Nash’s picture top marks and asked to see more work. With Joseph Conrad, HG Wells and Augustus John among his close friends Rothenstein’s influence in London art circles was considerable, and he now became Nash’s second supporter.
The first was Gordon Bottomley, an equally influential poet and creator of verse dramas whom Nash wooed in an unusual way. A neighbour at Iver Heath had lent the young man a copy of a book by Bottomley that the author, a giant of a man laid low by tuberculosis and confined to his Cumberland home, had lent them. Nash was so taken with the verses that he drew illustrations in the book itself and, rather than take offence, Bottomley wrote to say how much he liked the pictures. Their subsequent correspondence was to last until Nash’s death, and the author became another valuable ally.
Through his expanding connections Nash made enough money to pay the fees at the Slade and he spent a year in 1910/11 under the tutelage of the legendary Henry Tonks. Although he later described the venerable institution as ‘a typical English Public School seen in a nightmare’ Nash made lasting friendships with Ben Nicholson and others. However he learnt more from private lessons with Sir William Blake Richmond, a bearded old patriarch who was the godson of William Blake. He had, Nash later recollected, ‘a booming Blake-like voice, but inadequate control of the letter R. Nearly all our interviews ended the same way,’ Nash recalled, ‘“Wemember, my boy, drwawing, drwawing, drwawing, ALWAYS drwawing.”’
‘It was undoubtedly the first place which expressed for me,’ he explained later, ‘something more than its natural features seemed to contain, something which the ancients spoke of as genius loci – the spirit of a place.’
There was something in the design of the garden, and in the way light played across it, that gave it at certain times a beauty that seemed to Nash something more than natural beauty, something mysterious or unreal. He would devote the best part of his life to the exploration of this phenomenon, seeking out places in which he felt this spirit strongly and endeavouring to capture it on canvas or paper.
|Paul Nash, Barbara in the Garden, 1913/14 (Tate)|
At first it was disappointing. The elms, which Nash had drawn almost as figures in a landscape, were long gone, with only the occasional skeletal trunk remaining, and the village itself had become one of those well-to-do dormitories that encircle London, complete with private roads and security gates. It took a while to find Wood Lane, but at last here it was, and here too the Nashes’ old house, a modest villa still surrounded by fields. It was easy to spot the Bird Garden, the shrubs now fully grown, and in the neighbouring fields one could imagine one of the artist’s solitary wanderers strolling towards a line of woods. The sense of place, though, eluded me, and I felt rather let down as I climbed back into the car and pulled away.
Then I spotted the entrance to a lane I hadn’t yet explored and, after waiting for a gap in the fast-moving traffic, turned down it. As I pottered along the quiet road, with ancient beeches and oaks on either side and beyond them rough pasture, I felt a curious sense of familiarity. I stopped the car and got out. It was late afternoon in summer and the lane led quietly away beneath the overhanging branches, brightly lit here and there by the sun but otherwise shadowed. My skin prickled. Nash had walked here in this lane, and perhaps set his easel up here, a century before. I went on and found an orchard and a park with immense solitary trees and, in a moment of wonderful incongruity, an old wooden boat, clinker-built and at least fifteen feet from stem to stern, blocking the entrance to a field in place of a gate.
With this praise ringing in his ears, Nash secured himself a small one-man show at Rothenstein’s prestigious Carfax Gallery. The following year, 1913, Paul and John – now also an artist – held a successful joint exhibition at a small gallery in South Kensington, in which Paul showed drawings of Wittenham Clumps, a distinctive pair of hills near Didcot in Oxfordshire. Roger Fry approved, although Paul instinctively mistrusted him, and Spencer Gore picked half a dozen pictures by each brother for an exhibition of English Post-Impressionists and Cubists in Brighton. There was a certain irony in this, given the brothers’ lack of enthusiasm for current trends, but it showed that they had arrived, a fact confirmed by an invitation to meet Sir Edward ‘Eddie’ Marsh, Winston Churchill’s Private Secretary and an influential collector.
Having been teased at the Slade for his ordinary appearance, Paul now adopted a broad-brimmed hat and long tweed cloak, with a long-stemmed cherrywood pipe and a black ebony stick to enhance the effect. He was undoubtedly ‘an artist of some sort’.
When the war came, Paul Nash hesitated for a month then went along to the Euston Road headquarters of the Artists’ Rifles to enlist. War did not interest him, indeed violence of any kind horrified him, but he felt compelled to volunteer for home service at least. Future BBC producer Lance Sieveking met Private Nash when he too joined up and the pair were drilling in Russell Square; Sieveking was immediately struck by the twenty-four year old’s air of quiet assurance, his neatness and composure. The young artist was ‘a superlatively elegant dandy… spruce and neat down to the last detail. His black hair was brushed back off his forehead in a thick gleaming mass, and he wore short, neat side-whiskers. His jacket was… beautifully cut. His collar was very low and he wore an enormous tie neatly knotted.’
The war was supposed to be over by Christmas. Almost two years later the build-up to the Battle of the Somme had begun and Paul Nash was set to quit teaching and train as an officer. In uniform he was as dapper as ever, while the taller Thomas wore his uniform like his old shapeless tweeds. They must have made an incongruous pair as they walked in the Essex lanes to the pub, each perhaps unaware that the other shared his own profound sensitivity to the landscape.
As the day grew closer when Nash and Wheatley would leave, bound for France, Thomas wrestled privately with his doubts and produced an exquisite poem that begins with a pastoral vision:
As the team’s head brass flashed out on the turn,
Two lovers disappeared into the wood.
The ploughman, working his way up and down the field, pauses every ten minutes on the turn to chat with the poet, who is sitting on the branch of an elm felled by a blizzard, and the subject of the war comes up.
‘Have you been out?’ the ploughman asks.
‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to perhaps?’
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…
Have many gone From here?’
‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost?’ ‘Yes: a good few.
Not long after, Thomas followed the example of his friends and volunteered for France, and in February 1917 Nash and Thomas embarked separately for Le Havre, the former to join the 15th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant, and the latter to fill the same rank with the Royal Garrison Artillery.
Nash travelled on to Rouen and by slow degrees approached the Front, keenly aware of the countryside around him. ‘Everywhere are old farms, rambling and untidy,’ he wrote in a letter home, ‘some of course ruined and deserted, all have red or yellow or green roofs and on a sunny day they look fine. The willows are orange, the poplars carmine with buds, the streams gleam brightest blue and flights of pigeons go wheeling about the field. Mixed up with all this normal beauty of nature you see the strange beauty of war. Trudging along the road you become gradually aware of a humming in the air, a sound rising and falling in the wind. You look up and after a second’s search you can see a gleaming shaft in the blue like a burnished silver dart, another and then another…’
His senses alive to this extraordinary new place, Nash described ‘the back garden of the trenches’ as ‘amazingly beautiful – the mud is dried to a pinky colour and upon the parapet, and through sandbags even, the green grass pushes up and waves in the breeze, while clots of bright dandelions, clover, thistles and twenty other plants flourish luxuriantly, brilliant growth of bright green against the pink earth.’
|Paul Nash, Indians in Belgium, 1917 (Imperial War Museum)|
|Paul Nash, Ruined Country, 1917 (Imperial War Museum)|
Nash wrote this on Good Friday, 6 April 1917, as, fifty miles to the south, Thomas noted ‘infantry with yellow patches behind marching soaked up to line’. The Battle of Arras was about to begin, and on Easter Monday the British guns, including Thomas’s battery, laid down a ferocious barrage. In the aftermath, as the infantry attack got under way, he was knocked down by the blast from an enemy shell, and killed instantly.
‘Thomas is dead…’ wrote Nash some weeks later, as preparations for the year’s major offensive intensified. ‘I brood on it dully.’
The 15th Hampshires were to take a lead in the summer campaign, attacking the German stronghold at Messines Ridge, and in the build-up Nash trained with his men, preparing for the moment when it would be their turn to go over the top. Proud of his company and full of compassion for the plight of the ‘Poor little lonely creatures in this great waste’, Nash was ready to face death. But a week before the attack, on the 25th May, fortune came to his aid when he fell into a trench in the dark and broke a rib. Within days he was admitted to the Swedish War Hospital in London, then he won permission to work on his drawings, and by the end of June twenty were hanging in the Goupil Galleries, where they were well received.
Now began a race against time. As soon as he recuperated he was sent back to his regiment, and by August was once again in Gosport awaiting transport to France. He wanted to go back, there was no question about it, but as an official war artist. Time was not on his side, but Eddie Marsh and Rothenstein were. And Nash had a formidable weapon at his disposal, a woman before whom men of high office quailed: his wife Margaret.
|Bassano Ltd, Margaret Nash, 1922 (National Portrait Gallery)|
Open-minded, passionate and prone to eccentric behaviour – she was clairvoyant, among other things – Margaret Nash was to endure a great deal as Paul’s wife but remained his champion long after his death. Now she came to his aid, bearding officials and cajoling dignitaries. John Buchan, the novelist and Director of Information, preferred the work of more traditional draughtsmen like Muirhead Bone, the first official war artist, but such was the fuss being made on Nash’s behalf that he acquiesced, and in the autumn Paul was seconded to the Department of Information. He returned to France in November with a car and driver, and a batman who was a professional valet and cook, although he did not keep such luxuries for long.
‘My excellent chauffeur is leaving,’ he wrote, ‘and my chef has been precipitated into the windscreen and messed up his mouth. With true spirit and the nice feeling of a faithful servant he only said, “How fortunate it wasn’t you, sir!”’
This jaunty tone evaporated quickly as Nash travelled to the front lines and viewed the wastes of Passchendaele - ‘one huge grave, and cast up on it the poor dead. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless.’
|Landscape of Passchendaele (Library & Archives Canada)|
|Paul Nash, Wire, 1918 (Imperial War Museum)|
Unlike Paul and Edward Thomas he had not received a commission in England and was instead serving as a Corporal with the Artists’ Rifles. John might have considered this rather typical for, like his good friend Gilbert Spencer, he was continually overshadowed by his older brother. While Paul was nursing his broken rib and preparing his first sketches for exhibition, John was training for battle. He wrote to his fiancé, artist and former Slade student Christine Kuhlenthal, ‘On Saturday night at ten o’clock I wonder what you were doing? I was standing on the step with my gun and fixed bayonet by my side peering over 800 yards of tangled wire and grass trying to see if Fritz was coming across to pay us a visit while round about fell, flew, and whistled respectively 5.9 shells, whizzbangs, pineapples so-called and machine-gun bullets. I never knew when I was not going to be blown to bits, but I do assure you I thought it curious myself that my feelings were not of fear. Surely there will be some recompense for us?’
In July the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, began. John sent home his beloved copy of Lavengro for safekeeping, but when it was the turn of his unit to go up to the front line he was sent instead on a trench mortar course, his commanding officer telling him, ‘We can’t have all our NCOs killed. We have to keep a certain number back.’
On 5 November Paul found him alive and well, writing to Margaret, ‘I must not say much but I can tell you that Jack has been miraculously spared... I found the dear old fellow at last after a day’s search looking very well – a bronzed and tattered soldier…’
It being Sunday the brothers took a drive behind the lines, ‘through the pleasant lands of France’, but then followed an anxious time as Paul tried desperately to get his brother commissioned as a war artist. John spent Christmas in a foxhole in No Man’s Land, covered in ice and sustained by bully beef and rum, then, on December 30th, took part in a counter-attack against German forces that had infiltrated British lines close to Cambrai. Leading fourteen men, Nash followed the Colonel’s command to go over the top and ran with the rest across the snow towards the German lines, only to be pinned down by machine gun fire. Men fell all around him but John, who had taken the precaution of removing his greatcoat with its prominent Corporal’s stripes before leaving shelter of the trench, survived unscathed.
This proved to be John Nash’s last battle. By the end of January he was back in England, and in May was appointed an official war artist alongside Paul, whose exhibition of fifty war pictures had just opened at the Leicester Galleries to enthusiastic reviews: ‘This is a beautiful and wonderful world, he seems to say,’ wrote a critic in the Times, ‘and see what man has made of it. See also how even man’s insanity cannot rob the tortured and battered earth of its beauty. In many of his drawings he has been struck by the strange, unaccountable beauty of the meaningless shapes of things so tortured and battered. They make an abstract music of their own, like the abstract music of form that the cubist tries to make for himself. Mr Nash has not had to make it; it was there for him to see; utter chaos, as of a world dead for a million years, frozen and without atmosphere, and yet beautiful to frightened human eyes…’
Of course there were many other artists at work during the Great War, some of whom produced lasting images of the conflict. While William Rothenstein represented the old school of military portraiture, Richard Nevinson brought Modernist techniques to the subject, using angular forms and repetition to suggest the war’s industrial-scale violence. Nash’s achievement lay in conveying the experience described by John in his letter to Christine, an experience shared by every man who served on the Western Front, of every nationality: that of staring over the parapet of a trench across the devastated landscape. Herbert Read, a serving soldier who would become one of the most influential critics of his time, felt that Nash ‘could convey, as no other artist, the phantasmagoric atmosphere of No Man’s Land.’
Thanks to Paul’s success the two brothers were now commissioned to produce major paintings for a proposed memorial museum. Neither had worked on such a scale before – Paul, indeed, had never painted in oils – but this did not deter them. They went in search of a studio where they could work side by side and found, on the common outside Chalfont St Peter, Bucks, not far from the family home at Iver Heath, an agricultural shed that had previously been used for drying medicinal herbs.
This is less eccentric than it sounds. The scale of the violence in France had created an unprecedented demand for medicines of all kinds and plants were used in numerous ways. Sphagnum moss, long cherished for its absorbancy, was dried and used in the manufacture of surgical dressings, while marigolds were grown for the soothing antiseptic quality of their essential oil, calendula; the landscape designer Gertrude Jerkyl set aside an acre for this purpose during the war.
|Mrs Grieve at Work (photo Bucks County Council)|
On his appointment as a war artist, John Nash had been asked by Buchan whether he would like to return to the Front and refresh his memory. Nash retorted that anyone who had been there was unlikely to forget what he had seen, but did make one request. So that he and Paul could accurately convey the details of life at the front could the War Office supply barbed wire, duckboards, gun chains, corrugated iron and so on to the studio? The materials were duly dispatched by lorry, signed for by the artist-officers, and arranged so as to recreate on the common the landscape of the trenches.
|John Nash, Over the Top, 1918 (Imperial War Museum)|
‘We all lunch together,’ Paul explained to Gordon Bottomley, ‘in the studio where there is a piano so our wives enchant us with music thro’ the day. A phantastic experience,’ he added, ‘as all lives seem these days but good while it lasts… France and the trenches would be a mere dream I suppose if our minds were not perpetually bent upon those scenes.’
|Paul Nash, Void, 1918 (National Gallery of Canada)|
|John Nash, The Cornfield, 1918/19 (Tate)|
|Paul Nash, Sudden Storm, 1919, lithograph (Tate)|
Paul, meanwhile, found time for more clandestine adventures. Early in 1919 John reported that ‘Poor Bunty had a nervous break-up and she and Paul have returned to their flat…’ He failed to mention that the dashing military artist had seduced a Chalfont woman, and that her husband was threatening to kill him. With this inelegant departure the brothers’ work as war artists came to an end. By the spring both had been demobilised and were urgently trying to work out, after almost five years on the government payroll, how to live in this new world beyond the war.
I originally wrote this as the opening chapter of a book, but having established that the book will probably never be written I thought I should at least post the chapter online. The images are included for reference purposes, and copyright of course remains with the copyright holders.