Paul Nash at Tate: archaeology and trauma

Paul Nash with a megalith: photographed by Clare Neilson in the Forest of Dean in 1939, from an album in the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, and displayed in Tate

I went to see the Tate Gallery’s previous big show in London about Paul Nash in 1975, with my friend Diana Hale, then a student at Goldsmiths College, who died in November. Nash, along with an ever-growing club of artist and writers, stayed with me ever since. At first it was his landscapes. Working and living around Avebury, I’d see his tree clumps on the downs, his megaliths, and his collections of flints and wood. Later I could see more in his piles of logs than rustic scenes, and thanks to exhibitions such as (most recently) that at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2010, I imagined I could appreciate the variety in his work as a wholeness rather than a fragmented series of conflicting styles. In Tate at the new exhibition that’s there until March 15 (which naturally I thoroughly recommend), I thought back to a painting I’d seen there 40 years before.

Follow the Fuhrer IWM.jpg
Imperial War Museum

It was one of three watercolours, with a dab of collage, painted in 1942 to illustrate the horror of a Nazi invasion of Britain. They have the general title Follow the Führer, and were rejected for propaganda use by the Ministry of Information, perhaps for their unmitigated darkness hovering on the edge of farce. They were in private hands in 1975, and are now in the Imperial War Museum’s collection, and owned by Tate (though none are in the current exhibition). Above the Clouds shows Hitler as a flying shark leading squadrons of fighters and bombers. I can’t find an illustration of Under the Waves, and I don’t remember it from 1975. The one that impressed me was Over the Snows. Here Hitler is a screaming face leading a surge of bleached, open-mouthed and broken skulls, across a landscape and straight at the viewer. It is deeply disturbing. In 1975 I found it hard to reconcile the image with the rural views hanging nearby.

There was always a lot of archaeology in Nash’s work, from megaliths and earthworks to his more general interest in things and landscapes. Archaeologists have written about this (such as Christopher Evans, see references at end). Sam Smiles especially, a writer and researcher into British art and visually-transmitted knowledge who teaches at Exeter University, has looked at Nash’s relationships with archaeologists and antiquity, and written a series of perceptive and well-informed articles.

Emma Chambers, who curated Tate’s show with Inga Fraser, kindly gave me a printed list of the works in Nash’s library, which is now in Tate’s archive. I was struck by the number of loosely archaeological items it contains. Nash had copies of Stukeley’s Abury, and Crawford and Keiller’s Wessex from the Air. He had four books by James Frazer. And more. But what most struck me was an offprint, signed and given to him by Stuart Piggott in 1938. The archaeologist had published the article three years before in the journal Antiquity; it is called “Stukeley, Avebury & the Druids.” Piggott owned a signed lithograph by Nash, an imaginary but realistic-looking view of the West Kennet Avenue, created for a series of educational posters for schools. It was hanging prominently in Piggott’s Berkshire cottage when he died in 1996. Nash had given it to him in 1938.

I like to imagine the two men exchanging gifts. We know from an entry in one of Keiller’s excavation diaries (thanks for this, Ros Cleal), that Keiller, Nash and Piggott were together in Avebury in June 1938, so it’s quite possible. Although he wrote little about it publicly, Piggott had close relationships with several artists of his day. Was Nash among them?

With the evidence we have, it may be impossible to say, though some material remains to be fully examined (not least the wonderful Stuart Piggott archive at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford, where I was privileged to have a peak yesterday; Nash does not appear in their catalogue). But I do think we can see more archaeology in Nash’s work than most of us realised.

I’ve written about this in the new British Archaeology. I argue there that Nash was profoundly affected by his experience in the trenches of the first world war. He was a war artist in a greater sense than that he painted both wars. His mature life’s entire work, I think, was partly a response to war, an expression of the personal impact of its eternal ugliness. He was an artist of trauma.

Equivalents for the Megaliths.jpg
(C) Tate 2016 (left), M Pitts (right)

What does that have to do with archaeology? In 2015 archaeologists Helen Wickstead and Martyn Barber argued convincingly that one of Nash’s key works – Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935) – was inspired by Maud Cunnington’s painted concrete markers at the Sanctuary, Avebury (above). This was a revelation, for Nash himself left no clues to suggest it. Maybe it’s a fantasy (if the colours match now, did they in 1935?).

Circle of the Monoliths (1937–38) © Tate 2016/Leeds Museums & Galleries

But once you start looking for hidden archaeological references, you keep finding them. The red of the round marker (in the paintings and in the grass today) appears in other works, including three significant oils in which megaliths stand on red discs. Now we can see, perhaps, that these stones are portrayed as rising out of the ground through red portals, as Nash might have imagined them at the Sanctuary – even “real” megaliths are “equivalents” for absent histories.

Encounter of two objects Tate.jpg
(C) Tate 2016/Private collection

In another work, shown for the first time in the Tate exhibition, three objects are arranged in a tense still-life. The painting is actually named Encounter of Two Objects (1936–37). Those two are natural stones, but the unnoticed third is something else. It might be a miniature Silbury Hill, seen from above with a conical shadow as viewed in air photos that Crawford might have had, and illustrated by John Piper in an article published in Axis in 1937 (the spread below is taken from Alexandra Harris’s book, see references). But more likely I think is a very specific item of bronze age Wessex gold, a pointed button-cover from a grave at Upton Lovell in Wiltshire. Such Wessex artefacts were the focus of a substantial research project by Stuart Piggott in the 1930s. Is that coincidence?

Axis 1937.jpg
Axis 1937/Harris 2010
Silbury from above (left), Upton Lovell gold (right)

I note more in the British Archaeology article, but a key work is that watercolour with the wave of skulls, I’m convinced it’s directly influenced by Nash’s visit to Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations at Maiden Castle.

Nash and Wheeler first met when they were studying at the Slade in London; Wheeler later claimed him “a treasured familiar”, though what Nash thought of Wheeler we can only guess. Both were at Passchendaele in October 1917, Nash drawing, Wheeler in charge of a Battery in “the definition of hell”.

MC skeletons Nash Tate.jpg
Burials at Maiden Castle photographed by Nash in 1935, (C) Tate 2016

At Maiden Castle, the archaeologist interpreted a cemetery of skeletons as the remains of native defenders slaughtered by an invading Roman army. Nash’s three watercolour collages, Follow the Führer, depict Hitler leading armies of death into England. In Over the Snows, the landscape backdrop fits that of Maiden Castle, and the white hollows in the foreground – shell craters, trenches – could be chalk as much as snow. The rolling blanket of fractured skulls surely derives from Nash’s photos and memories of the excavated burials.

Returned from the first world war, Nash found consolation for death in landscapes shaped by people long gone; the trees and fields of rural England, animated by antiquity, were a sign of nature’s power to survive devastation by humanity. (And note the success today of Operation Nightingale, which runs archaeological investigations with service personnel recovering from action with the British Armed Forces; see features in British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2011/122 and May/Jun 2014/136).

When war returned in 1939, so did Nash’s demons, shown graphically in the horror of Totes Meer (1940–41), the sea a swirling mass of wrecked warplanes. In his last few years, Nash found light and colour in the symbolism of solstice and eclipse (drawing on Frazer). But at Maiden Castle, Wheeler had exposed the dead that lie beneath the mud, as the shells had done at Passchendaele. For once, the ancient landscape had thrown up the figures which Eileen Agar, with whom Nash had a powerful affair, tells us were of no interest to him in his engagement with prehistory. They were not welcome.


BA 152 Nash.jpgSee my “Paul Nash: Encounters with archaeology,” British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2016/152. All editions of British Archaeology can now be viewed digitally. I wrote about the concrete markers at Woodhenge, which have been better researched than those at the Sanctuary, last year (A vote in a Wiltshire field about drainpipes).

Sam Smiles: “Ancient country: Nash & prehistory,” in Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape, ed Jemima Montagu (2003). “Thomas Guest & Paul Nash in Wiltshire: two episodes in the artistic approach to British antiquity,” in Envisioning the Past: Archaeology & the Image (ed Sam Smiles & Stephanie Moser, 2004). “Imagining the past: archaeological & artistic perspectives,” in Written on Stone: The Cultural Reception of British Prehistoric Monuments, ed Joanne Parker (2009).

Alexandra Harris: Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists & the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (2010)

Christopher Evans: “Unearthing displacement: Surrealism & the ‘archaeology’ of Paul Nash,” in Substance, Memory, Display: Archaeology & Art, ed Colin Renfrew, Chris Gosden & Elizabeth DeMarrais (2004).

Helen Wickstead & Martyn Barber: “Concrete prehistories: the making of megalithic modernism,” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 2 (2015).


The trauma of war. Trails (this morning in Wiltshire) turned to entrails (Battle of Britain 1941, Imperial War Museum):


Battle of Britain 1941 IWM.jpg
Imperial War Museum

3 thoughts on “Paul Nash at Tate: archaeology and trauma

  1. Thanks for this. Intriguing to think Equivalents For The Megaliths was inspired by the concrete markers at Avebury. But then it sounds entirely logical. I was sorry to hear Diana Hale has died. I’d wondered why her blog was quiet. I’d missed her occasional kind words.

    1. I went to see the Tate show again yesterday, with my family – it closes on March 5. Well worth going. Yes, very sad about Diana. I gave an address at her funeral. She had a woodland burial, entirely appropriate with birds and trees and a little sun.

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