Residents of North Oxford will be no strangers to the presence of the artist Paul Nash in the city during the 1940s, writes Dr Ian Holgate.

A blue plaque at 106 Banbury Road records the fact that the artist lived here from 1940-46. In fact, Nash, who was born in 1889, created his final works in this house up until his death in July 1946.

Paul Nash has become an increasingly important practitioner in studies of British modernism. A writer and intellectual as well as a painter, photographer and printmaker he is perhaps best known today as a painter of landscapes and as a key contributor to British surrealism in the 1930s. Works which he made in Dymchurch in Kent and his preoccupation with Seaside Surrealism in the area around Swanage in Dorset have made his paintings synonymous with these regions.

Despite his years spent in Oxford and his associations with the surrounding area throughout his life, however, relatively little attention has been given to his time spent in the city.

The artist and his wife, Margaret, had come to Oxford in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II. Determined to contribute to the war effort, he set up the Arts Bureau for War Service in the city and was subsequently appointed as an official war artist by the Air Ministry (1940) and the Ministry of Information (1941).

Oxford Mail:

Nash was tasked with creating images relating to the activities of the RAF in and around Oxford – a number of Nash’s drawings, watercolours and photographs demonstrate his connections with air bases at Cowley and perhaps also at Harwell and Bicester.

Working in Oxford probably suited Nash given a network of personal associations that he had with the city and its environs. Margaret (his wife since shortly after their meeting in 1913), or Bunty as he called her, had studied Modern History at St Hilda’s College. The couple’s failing health – Paul suffered from chronic asthma which became increasingly debilitating during the ‘40s – probably also influenced their decision to settle in Oxford. Nash was a regular visitor to the nearby Acland nursing home.

In fact, the larger region seems to have represented something of an artistic homecoming for him since, beyond his war work, Nash’s paintings from his last years focus on the Wittenham Clumps, in what is now south Oxfordshire.

Oxford Mail:

These two large mounds of earth had been the site of bronze age settlements, but for Nash it was most probably their crowns of majestic beech trees that caught his attention, first as a young artist and again during his time in Oxford. Nash could be said to be obsessed with trees, in 1912 declaring in a letter to a friend, “I have tried…to paint trees as tho’ they were human beings…because I sincerely love and worship trees and know that they are people”.

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From 1942 Nash would visit his friend Hilda Harrisson at Boars Hill, to study the distant landscape of the Clumps through binoculars, before subsequently working up his drawings and watercolours as large oil paintings in his studio downstairs at Banbury Road.

As a young man, Nash found the Clumps to be precisely the kind of bewitching subject which he depended on for inspiration throughout his career. One of his earliest drawings The Wood on the Hill of 1912 puts Castle Hill centre stage.

Oxford Mail:

Nash first encountered the Clumps as a boy, during stays at the farm of his father’s relatives at Sinodun House near Wallingford, as he recounts in his autobiography Outline, much of which was written during his time in Oxford. Nash’s engagement with landscape, the genius loci or ‘spirit of place’ is today typically discussed in terms of his fascination with the emotional and psychological charge which he took from certain parts of the land and their place within a larger British history. But we shouldn’t overlook the personal and familial connections that are undoubtedly wrapped up with this subject matter for the painter.

Indeed, the Clumps were so important for Paul that they feature prominently in the poster that he and his brother, John, designed for an early joint exhibition at the Dorien Leigh Gallery in 1913. Here, the two tree-topped hills rise above self-portraits of the two painters who are accompanied by their closest friends of the time.

That the late paintings of the Clumps had a particular resonance for Nash is demonstrated by a series of portrait photos of the artist in his studio taken in 1943 by the celebrated photographer, Felix H. Mann. In each of these photographs Nash’s ‘Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (III)’, with its focus on the Clumps, is proudly displayed on his easel as a companion to the artist. At the very end of his life, therefore, Nash revisited his artistic origins. No doubt aware that his time was limited, his imagination – as well as his paintings and writings – returned him to the landscape outside Oxford as a site to remember his youth, his family, his friends and his earliest days with Margaret.

A study day devoted to Nash’s work in and around Oxford takes place at Oxford Brookes University tomorrow (Saturday).

Led by Dr Jan D Cox, Pete Vass and Dr Ian Holgate, the event will offer art fans a guide to the themes of Nash’s work, importance of locality, and his larger themes of image as landscape, as surreal encounter and wartime propaganda.

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