A Landscape in Letters – Intro and Class 1

Welcome to the home of our Paul Nash: A Landscape in Letters course at Tate Britain. Consider this website our informal place to store class notes and share related links and information. And I do mean ‘our’ place – please feel free to get in touch if you’ve got something the class might find interesting and I’ll post it.

Below this are my notes from the Class 1 talk, ‘Unseen Landscapes’, which served to introduce some of the topics we’ll cover in coming weeks. If you were unable to attend, please note that a large part of the class was taken up with writing, exercises and discussions, but hopefully we can bring you up to speed on that this coming Friday.

First, a few reminders:

  • Feel free to contact me individually via email so that we can begin discussing your long-range writing project. If you don’t have a project in mind, we can talk about it to get the ball rolling. We’ll also talk a bit about this at the start of Friday’s class.
  • Two important dates to note: 24 Feb. we will be in the Archives; the final class, 10 March, we will be in an undisclosed location* for a performance and reading session. (*i.e. TBD)
  • At least two people asked about the wall text for the exhibition: this link should let you download the PDF of the large-print guide; I don’t know for certain that it has ALL the texts, but I think it’s got what those two participants were looking for, at the least!
  • Don’t hesitate to contact me for … whatever!

Class 1 – ‘Unseen Landscapes’, Justin’s class notes.

In this course we’re looking at Paul Nash not just as a painter or photographer; a war artist or British surrealist; but as a writer and, most importantly, as the provocateur of an entire way of looking at the English landscape. I want to posit Paul Nash as the great forerunner to our contemporary relationship with landscape – a relationship that mixes up Romanticism and postmodernism, and that finds as much beauty in the landscapes of a Keith Arnatt photograph as a Turner; and, perhaps more importantly, vice-versa.

A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) 1982-4 Keith Arnatt 1930-2008 Purchased 2010 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T13149It’s a shift in approach that we can see as it occurs in Nash’s artwork, but also in his writing, his photographs, his letters, his entire worldview. In a moment, we’ll see a version of this shift through two pieces of writing from two very different periods of Nash’s life. But first, a little bit of context as it applies to our interest in landscape.

Nash was born in London in 1889, had his first one-man show in 1912. From 1914 he was enlisted in the army; in 1917 he’s sent to the front as a war artist. In the 1920s, his star rises – his skills as a war artist supplanted by a certain amount of renown as a painter in his own right. In 1933, he founds Unit One, the contemporary artists group that included the likes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and visits Avebury stone circle and Silbury Hill. By 1934, it’s over and Nash is collecting found objects. In 1940, he’s a war artist once again, and begins some of his most famous paintings such as Totes Meer. In 1943, reads Frazer’s The Golden Bough; dies in 1946 at age 57.

Avebury Double ExposureThis puts Nash’s formative years at an interesting moment in the history of people looking at – and writing about – the English landscape.

It’s the moment of curious gothic and decadent incidents in the landscape: MR James and Arthur Machen’s pagan ghost stories.

It’s the moment of Antiquity magazine, and the flowering of British archaeology – and, in particular, Nash comes hot on the heels of the era of the gentleman archaeologist, and the high period of ruination: of Wordsworth and Turner at Tintern Abbey, and the professional, modern excavations at Stonehenge.

It’s the moment of new British topographical and antiquarian writing – from the florid but didactic, like the Highways and Byways series, to the slightly mystical, such as Alfred Watkins’ The Old Straight Track and Arthur Beckett’s Spirit of the Downs.

It’s the moment, of course, of the war poets: Nash met Edward Thomas during their training, not long before Thomas would be sent to the front and his death. But it’s also the moment of high modernism: of Eliot’s Waste Land and of the Rite of Spring, and of course of the surrealism with which Nash would become associated.

Nash isn’t just of these moment – when it comes to landscape, Nash’s paintings and writings might be seen as the final product of these moments combined. He synthesizes the love of antiquity and topography; mystery, eerie and uncanny; with surrealism, high modernism and even the proud despair of war poetry.

21st century interpretations of the English landscape are profoundly indebted to this synthesis.

For Nash, as Roger Cardinal has said specifically of his photography, ‘there is something about Nash’s subject choices which looks like a willful refusal of the obvious’. Likewise, His paintings may cite particular places, and be embued with the spirit of those places, but they become more paintings of the essence of a place rather than its specifics.

event on the downsIn this way, he is the forerunner to nonfiction writers such as Iain Sinclair, Robert Macfarlane and the late great Mark Fisher; poets like Helen Macdonald and Peter Riley; and besides his obvious impact on visual arts, more subtle inspirations such as Keith Arnatt and Laura Oldfield Ford.

The key to all of this is Nash’s interest in what can’t be seen in a landscape, but is, to his mind at least, indelibly present. Nash came to believe that these presences were the key to the English landscape, and the undiscovered form that binds English art. It is the key of the indeterminate place: the place that is both a physical place, that one can enter, and a spiritual place that can only be experienced through the aesthetic.

‘The landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world in a psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.’

The unseen as the present but not perceived is the key concept to 21st-century landscapes: whether it’s a London psychogeography, or a walk along the South Downs Way.

Here are two pieces of writing by Nash, one from 1917 and one from 1934, that illustrate the shift he undertook to get to this point:

In his letters:

April 18, 1917

‘Flowers for my sweetheart from the woods of France. Not so far away from the trenches and … the scene of battle. … The wood was one of those jolly … copses with a little bubbly stream at the bottom. The ground very black beneath and wet with the late rains and all about sprang these strange little flowers half primrose, half cowslip, and these other fellows, strangers to me. I don’t know what they are called but they’re very welcome. I frankly neglected the scheme at hand and grubbed about collecting these tokens for my love.’

From writings for Unit One:

‘English art has always shown particular tendencies which recur throughout its history. A pronounced linear method in design … a peculiar bright delicacy in choice of colors – somewhat cold but radiant and sharp in key. A concentration too on the practice of portraiture … but such characterizations will not help to explain what I have in mind. There seems to exist, behind the frank expression of portrait and scene, an imprisoned spirit: yet this spirit is the source, the motive power which animates the art. These pictures are the vehicles of this spirit, but, somehow, they are inadequate, being only echoes and reflections of familiar images [in portrait and scene]. If I were to describe the spirit I would say it is of the land; genius loci is indeed almost its conception. If its expression could be designated I would say it is almost entirely lyrical. Further, I dare not go; except to recount history and to state my faith. Towards the end of the 18th century, William Blake, then, and often now, called a madman, perceived among many things the hidden significance of the land he always called Albion. For him, Albion possessed great spiritual personality and he constantly inveighed against ‘Nature’, the appearance of which he distrusted as a false reality. At the same time, his work was immensely influenced by the country he lived in. His poetry literally came out of England. Blake’s life was spent in seeking to discover symbols for what his ‘inward’ eye perceived, but which alas, his hand could seldom express. Turner, again, sought to break through the deceptive mirage which he could depict with such ease, to a reality more real, in his imagination. In the same way, we, today, must find new symbols to express our reaction to environment. In some cases this will take the form of an abstract art, in others we may look for some different nature of imaginative research. But in whatever form it will be a subjective art.

Last summer I walked in a field near Avebury where two rough monoliths stood up sixteen feet high, miraculously patterned with black and orange lichen, remnants of the avenue of stones which led to the the Great Circle. A mile away, a green pyramid casts a giant shadow. In the hedge, at hand, the white trumpet of the convolvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun. In my art I would solve such an equation.’

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