Paul Nash
Biography of English Surrealist Painter.

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Dead Sea (1940-1) Detail
Tate Britain, London.
For other surrealist works similar to
those produced by Paul Nash, see:
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Paintings by Paul Nash
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in the form of poster art.

Paul Nash (1889-1946)

The English fine art painter, book illustrator and designer Paul Nash belonged to the tradition of independent-minded artists, being firmly anchored in the English School of landscape painting but, at the same time, an active participant in the styles of modern art which swept Europe during the early 20th century. A talented War Artist during World War I, he was later influenced by Surrealism, whose creative aesthetics he used in several abstract paintings of landscape subjects. A supporter of avant-garde art, he was a founder member of Unit One (1933) and helped to organize the important International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. Especially talented in book illustration, he also designed theatrical scenery and textiles. His is best known for his paintings Dead Sea (1940-1, Tate Britain), and Dymchurch Steps (1922-4, Ottawa, National Gallery), along with his war paintings The Ypres Salient at Night (1917-18, Imperial War Museum), A Howitzer Firing (1914-18, IWM), and We are Making a New World (1918, IWM), as well as his illustrations for Thomas Browne's Urn Burial (1932). His younger brother John Nash (1893-1977) was also a painter, specializing in landscapes as well as illustrations, notably flower drawings. Regarded as one of England's greatest 20th century painters, Nash paved the way for contemporary British painting.

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Oils, watercolours, acrylics,
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Early Days and War Artist

He attended St Paul's School, where he failed his exams, and opted for a career as an artist. After a short period at the Chelsea Polytechnic and the London County Council School of Photo-engraving and Lithography, he enrolled at the Slade School of Art 1910-1911 under Henry Tonks. His fellow students included Stanley Spencer, Ben Nicholson, Dora Carrington and others. Unlike many of his contemporaries there, he resisted the influence of the Post-Impressionist Exhibition organised by Roger Fry in 1910, and his earliest drawings were quite Romantic in spirit, such as Angel and Devil (1910, Victoria & Albert Museum, London). They were mostly inspired by the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Samuel Palmer and William Blake. Gradually Nash turned to more realistic subject matter, drawing from nature, and created a range of atmospheric landscape painting. His first solo exhibition, devoted to watercolour painting, was held at the Carfax Gallery in 1912.

World War I

In 1914 Nash married Margaret Odeh, a political activist for Women's Suffrage. When war broke out he joined the Artists' Rifles, and in 1916 he became an officer in the Hampshire Regiment. The following year he was despatched to the Ypres salient, but returned home after four months, because of an accident. However, the fruit of those months was a set of drawings - showing the influence of the literary magazine BLAST and the Vorticism movement - which were exhibited at the Goupil Gallery, as a result of which he was appointed an official War Artist and returned to the front. He held another exhibition of war drawings at the Leicester Galleries in 1918, and from April to early in 1919 he painted Menin Road (London, Imperial War Museum), a painting commissioned by the government. The pictures of this period combine detached realism with a growing sense of abstract art: among the most impressive is We are Making a New World (1918, Imperial War Museum, London).




From 1918 to 1928 Nash took up book illustration, designed scenery for the theatre, and was for a brief period a teacher of design at the Royal College of Art. He also became recognized as a watercolourist of a high calibre, and a prominent member in the Society of Wood Engravers and was involved in its first exhibition. After a serious illness in 1921 he started a series of pictures of Dymchurch beach on the Kent coast. The broad, angular vision that characterizes these lonely and bleak views can be seen in Dymchurch Steps (1922-4, Ottawa, National Gallery). Towards the end of the 1920s Nash struggled to move beyond the apparent stagnation that threatened to halt the full expression of his powers. The Dymchurch paintings had already hinted at the possibilities of abstraction, and in The Shore (1923, Leeds, City Art Gallery) Nash reduced the formal elements of the picture even further, which heightened the effect of the bright, clear colouring. In 1928, under the influence of Giorgio de Chirico (who had held an exhibition in London that year), Nash decided to attempt to reveal "the reality of another aspect of the accepted world, this mystery of clarity that was at once so elusive and so positive."


This contact with Surrealism was a significant inspiration and generally opened a way in which he could advance. From 1928 to 1938 he travelled a good deal in Europe and in America, and in 1932 he completed his most important book illustrations to date, for Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus by Sir Thomas Browne. In 1933 he founded the abstract group Unit One, along with fellow artists Henry Moore (1898-1986), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), her husband Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), and the critic Herbert Read, and during the following years he staged further exhibitions, as well as doing commercial work. Ill health obliged Nash to seek a more salutary environment, and he moved house several times before settling in Hampstead. Meanwhile, his interest in Surrealism continued to develop but without the disturbing undertones of de Chirico or the continental Surrealists. Armed with a more literary and English sensibility, he - along with his younger contemporary Graham Sutherland (1903-80) - became associated with the Neo-Romantic movement. In particular, he found much inspiration in the English landscape, especially landscapes with a sense of ancient history, such as the standing megaliths at Avebury in Wiltshire, Iron Age hill forts such as Wittenham Clumps and other burial mounds. He tried to set his subjects in dramatic relationships that would uncover something of their true individuality.

World War II

Nash was still not in good health when the Second World War began. Once more he was appointed a War Artist, this time attached to the Air Ministry. But even under such changed conditions his style of painting remained the same: his colour was bright and clear, and his personal vision was strong enough to withstand the lesser pressures of his experience of the later war. Few of the war paintings have the desolation of some of his earlier works. Among the most notable is Totes Mers (Dead Sea) (Tate Britain), which shows a tangled mass of German aeroplanes lying in a dump near Oxford.

Nash died of heart disease in July, 1946, at Boscombe, Dorset. His last paintings had been of sunflowers - Sunflower and Sun (1942, Private Collection) and Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945, Private Collection) - and landscapes, which, like several symbolic pictures in earlier years, dealt with the concepts of regeneration and renewal.

Paintings by Paul Nash can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

• For biographical details of other important modern artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For the development of the arts, see: History of Art.
• For more about British Surrealism, see: Homepage.

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