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Alexandra Harris

The Brush & the Set Square

Paul Nash: Landscape and the Life of Objects
By Andrew Causey (Lund Humphries 168pp 35)
'Eclipse of the Sunflower', 1945

The strange visual world of Paul Nash is coming to seem very familiar. Ah yes: a bright red fungus levitating over the sea (or is it sinking?); giant metal girders in a summer cornfield; an ethereal snake in the woodshed (and an extra snake in the sky). Tate Liverpool staged a big Nash show in 2003; Dulwich Picture Gallery mounted 'Paul Nash: The Elements' in 2010. If there's a canon of British painting, Nash is in it. The surreal ingredients of his art have become part of the national furniture: clouds as solid as flints, ladders leading nowhere, stone circles thinking about coming to life.

The number of books already devoted to Nash (not least by Andrew Causey himself: he wrote a major monograph in 1980 and the definitive catalogue raisonné) might prompt one to ask what this new book does differently. It does not unveil long-lost pictures; it does not introduce new stashes of archive material. Instead, it does something so fundamental as to seem obvious, though no one has done it with such attentiveness, and the result makes us feel, perhaps more than ever before, the power of Nash's brilliant, alluring strangeness.

Causey conducts a focused investigation of Nash's symbolism. He unearths the rule books for Nash's games of snakes and ladders; he asks why there's a mirror in one picture and not another, and whether this whole hieroglyphic, semi-religious language is one of general impressions or precise meanings. Nash himself spoke in terms of mathematical precision: he felt he needed to 'solve the equation' of particular landscapes. He needed compass and set square as much as brush and palette.

His pictures pose their own algebraic challenges. 'Nash acted by substitution', writes Causey: there is a sense in which the tree stump of February, 1929 'stands for' his lost father; orchard rows are also ranks of soldiers, elm trees are conspiratorial ancestors. Nash approved of the Surrealist fascination with objets trouvés, and was happy to believe that no object is found at random, the subconscious having looked for it all along.

Arranging his own found objects as if they were part of some magical ceremony, he read eagerly about magic conducted by others. In the antiquarian works of William Stukeley he found druidic interpretations of the stones at Avebury and a version of snake symbolism that had less to do with deathliness than with renewal and incarnation. Other books became talismans on his shelf. Like many of his contemporaries, Nash was magnetised by the ritual processes described by James Frazer in The Golden Bough. His extraordinary late paintings of the Wittenham Clumps enacted seasonal rites of their own.

One of Causey's best sections is on Nash's illustrations to Thomas Browne's paired works from 1658, Urne-Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus. It has always been easy to see, in a general sort of way, why Nash was attracted to Browne: the fascination with ritual, the antiquarian turn of mysticism, the collector's love of esoteric objects, the mathematical philosopher's love of geometric patterns. But a generalised appreciation of what connected these two men across three centuries does not go very far towards unravelling the designs Nash actually produced in 1932. Of course he did nothing so obvious as to draw the archaeological finds from Walsingham that Browne describes. No: he drew weird underwater worlds where disembodied women float about with jellyfish, and he constructed aerial scaffolding inhabited by egg-haloed moths. Are these private images we can never hope to fathom? Or are they signs amenable to interpretation if we attend to the intersecting systems of thought developed by Browne and Nash?

Causey does a service by taking trouble with these images. He shows how Browne's underground becomes Nash's underwater, and how the soul's tour of the stations of heaven and earth as described by Plato was adopted by Browne and then rehoused by Nash in his sky-structure Mansions of the Dead. Browne saw the structure of the universe borne out in the miniature geometries of pine cones, fern fronds and thistle heads. In The Garden of Cyrus he wrote particularly about quincunx formation, recommending the planting of orchards in diagonally crossing rows (which is still the favoured layout today). 'Nature Geometrizeth, and observeth Order in all Things', said Browne; Nash, painting quincunx orchards and laying his set square against a pot plant, might have said the same.

Causey's book is a form of intellectual biography, taking certain motifs and watching them transform in Nash's work. The impression of Nash that emerges is of a profoundly solitary man, whose strongest ties were to prehistory rather than to his own times, and whose companions were Stukeley, Browne, Blake and Yeats. This is, of course, only a partial view of him. Causey's focus is on communities of objects rather than people. So he gestures in the briefest way to friendships and love affairs, giving only what is absolutely necessary to elucidate some painted symbol. The friendship between Nash and Edward Burra is potentially fascinating, for example, and Causey would be the person to write about it. But here he gives it only a line. Nash's brother John, himself a major artist who shared many of Paul's interests, features not at all.

There is a striking contrast, then, between the silently mutating objects of this book and the sociable world evoked by two exhibitions on show this summer. 'A Crisis of Brilliance', which opens at Dulwich Picture Gallery this month, places Nash in the company of five of his contemporaries at the Slade. The curator, David Boyd Haycock, aims to emphasise the ties of love and friendship that bound these artists, however idiosyncratic their private visions. He shows how they were united by the historical events they lived through. The people who shaped Nash's life and work in this show (Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, C R W Nevinson) have no place at all in Causey's book. Both versions of Nash are 'true', but you would hardly know they are the same man.

Pallant House Gallery in Chichester has recently taken possession of a wonderful collection of books, letters and prints amassed by Nash's close friend Clare Neilson. At the centre of this hauntingly personal exhibition is a different Nash again. Here he is building a uniquely spooky rock garden in Clare's garden. Here he is driving through Gloucestershire with Clare, and photographing the 'Monster Field' with Clare. Which of them spotted it first, the rearing head of that fallen log? Nash's mystical quests seem, in this exhibition, to be journeys of friendship and conversation. It is testament to Nash's greatness that we can have three new visions of him that are not the least bit similar. The sense of familiarity was an illusion. There is much more to discover about him still.


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Alexandra Harris is the author of Romantic Moderns (2010) and Virginia Woolf (2011).


Royal Literary Fund


John Murray