Wittenham, Paul Nash, 1935
At a glance
Artist: Paul Nash
Materials: Watercolour on paper
Acquisition: Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council (1985)
Paul Nash’s artistic identity was always pulled between his commitment to international modernism and his affinity with the English landscape and the Romantic tradition. The inherent spirit of a place was integral to Nash’s vision and he would return to certain landscapes throughout his career, imbuing them with a symbolic quality. Wittenham Clumps on the Downs in South Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire) was one such place which Nash first visited in 1908 whilst staying with his uncle. He returned again in 1912 to make his first drawings of the site, which was an ancient British camp. The most poignant depictions of this landscape belong to the last years of his life when he painted the Clumps as part of a series celebrating the different phases of the moon and the cycle of nature. In this watercolour at Pallant House Gallery, dating to 1935, he successfully depicts the landscape with a haunting and ominous presence during the interwar years.
In 1946, in his autobiography, Nash wrote in detail about Wittenham Clumps,
‘Ever since I remember them the Clumps had meant something to me. I felt their importance long before I knew their history. They eclipsed the impression of all the early landscapes I knew. This, I am certain, was due almost entirely to their formal features rather than to any associative force. For although in my mind they stood apart from other symbolism…it was the look of them that told me most, whether on sight or in memory. They were the Pyramids of my small world.’
As part of his artistic training, Nash entered the progressive Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1910 but left disappointed with his lack of progression after just a year. He was enrolled at the same time as several key artists represented in our collection including David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Ben Nicholson, William Roberts, Stanley Spencer and Edward Wadsworth.
At the start of the First World War in 1914, Nash enlisted in The Artists Rifles, a regiment in the British Army which had seen early members including the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, and Frederic Leighton. In November 1917, Nash was made an official war artist; a role he also undertook during the Second World War.
During the 1930s, Nash’s Romantic English landscapes began to transition as he became more interested in abstraction. Nash is often described as a Neo-Romantic artist – a term used for artists such as Nash, Graham Sutherland, Michael Ayrton, Ivon Hitchens, and others, whose work reflected on the destruction of two world wars and their imaginative responses to the English countryside through abstraction.
In 1933, Nash formed Unit 1, a group of experimental artists whose aim was to promote modern art, architecture and design. These artists were linked to movements including Surrealism and Constructivism. These artists included Barbara Hepworth, Edward Burra, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and, for a short period, Frances Hodgkin. Unit 1 was short-lived with their first and only exhibition taking place in 1934 accompanied by a publication Unit 1: The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture. In 1936, Nash was one of a number of artists, including Eileen Agar and Julian Trevelyan to exhibit in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, a pivotal exhibition that solidified Surrealism in Britain.