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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

A painting by Paul Nash depicting a wood standing atop gently rolling hills under a grey sky

Why Wittenham?

Alan Wood

[ Stories )

Paul Nash returned again and again to the Wittenham Clumps – but what was it about this landscape that attracted him?

The watercolour, Wittenham, in Pallant House Gallery is one of around 18 studies and paintings that Paul Nash made of this Oxfordshire, formerly Berkshire, landmark. He completed a first series between 1912 and 1914 and another group belong to 1935. In his final years, he returned to the subject again and at the time of his death, was engaged on another major work. The Clumps represented for Nash a lifelong and abiding passion.

He was born in 1889, and to continue a family tradition, seemed destined for a career in the Navy. The coaching necessary for entry to Naval College was an unhappy experience and he failed the examination. On leaving school, he resisted his father’s suggestion that he work in a bank and instead enrolled for an art course at Chelsea Polytechnic. In 1910 he entered the Slade School of Fine Art but left after a year, disappointed with lack of progress. His early work shows the influence of Rossetti and includes visionary figure compositions, but on discovering the countryside around Wallingford and Dorchester-on-Thames, south-east of Oxford, he turned to landscape as a source of inspiration.

His first essays in landscape composition were drawings made of Wittenham Clumps in 1912. He knew the area well by this time from explorations made during family holidays spent at Sinodun House, the home of a great uncle. The house lies at the start of the Sinodun Hills, a ridge of chalk that extends westwards for about two miles.

The Clumps, two tree-capped hills at the western end, overlook the village of Long Wittenham and the Thames. They are distinctive and visible for several miles in a predominantly flat landscape. For Nash they were full of associations and mystery. Writing to a friend in September 1911 he described them as:

…grey hallowed hills crowned with old trees, Pan-ish places down by the river wonderful to think on full of strange enchantment—a beautiful legendary country haunted by Old Gods long forgotten.

Wittenham Clumps atop Sinodun Hills Photograph Dave Price

He resolved to draw the Clumps for the first time, during the visit to Sinodun House in the autumn of 1912. Reflecting on this period in his autobiography, Outline (commenced in 1936), he described how he left his father, brother and sister and had set out not only to draw the Clumps but to capture their unique qualities.

There was one aspect which had I the wit to perceive it, would convey the strange character of the place, one image, which in its form would contain the individual spirit.

The outcome of this expedition was a series of about 20 drawings that he hoped to exhibit. Nash had been fortunate to have been introduced to Sir William Blake Richmond whose father, George Richmond, had been a friend of William Blake.

Sir William had taken Nash ‘under his wing’ and had become his mentor. He also provided an introduction to the most prestigious gallery in London at that time, the Carfax in St James’s. This was usually booked up for years ahead but Nash persuaded the manager to let him use a wall near the entrance as hanging space. This small exhibition, his first, achieved a modest success in terms of sales.

It also brought him to the attention of the art establishment, especially Sir William Rothenstein, the painter, writer, and later, Principal of the Royal College of Art. Nash wrote that he had bounced in to the gallery, “earnestly scanned the drawings and then with beaming eyes proceeded to cover me with compliments and confusion”. He also bought a drawing. Henceforth Nash would ‘go in for nature’ as Richmond had recommended.

A painting by Paul Nash depicting a wood standing atop gently rolling hills under a grey sky

Wood on the Hill, a quiet pastoral scene, is a drawing depicting Round Hill, the higher of the two. Birds flock overhead and the harvest is waiting to be gathered in. The subject of the watercolour Wittenham at Pallant House Gallery, completed in 1935, is the Iron Age fort on nearby Castle Hill. This is altogether more complex.

During the 1930s, Nash had become absorbed by the impact of civilisations on landscape. He had discovered the stone circle at Avebury in 1933, then in its un-restored state, and saw the stones as the “hallowed remnants of an almost unknown civilisation”.

Many generations later, Iron Age warriors made their impact on the chalk hills of Sinodun with immense earthworks. The dark, cave-like entrance to the wood adds mystery to the scene.

The final series (of seven oils) was painted between 1942 and 1944. From November 1942 he began to visit ‘Sandlands’, the home of his friend Hilda Harrisson, at Boars Hill, south-west of Oxford. From the garden he found he could see the Wittenham Clumps, although some eight miles away, with the aid of ‘field glasses’.

In each of the paintings, which are descriptive of the perpetual cycles of nature, the Clumps are seen in the background. But the compositions are imaginative, with distance foreshortened drastically. The Clumps provide the visual focus but they are also a link to the artist’s past when they were important in launching his career as a painter of landscapes.

He also painted them in the knowledge that, in all probability, his days on earth were numbered. His health deteriorated rapidly in 1942 from the bronchial asthma that had become chronic from 1935. The subjects, concerned as they are with the passage of time, are symbolic of an anticipated death.

Nash left this description of Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, this version, one of three, painted for his wife, Margaret:

It is early spring. The woods are diffused with the glow of buds about to break. There is a beech hedge still in its winter leaf … In the painter’s mind this place has compelling magic which makes it a sympathetic setting for the occasion of the Equinox.

Paul Nash died in July 1946. In that year he completed a further drawing and a major work on Wittenham Clumps, in oil and watercolour, was left unfinished. He died still haunted, as he had been in those happy but threatened years before the First World War, by “…those wonderful Downs and wild woods down by the river”.

This article first appeared in Pallant House Gallery Magazine, No 9, June 2006. It was written by Alan Wood, a volunteer Guide and Friend of Pallant House Gallery.