LANDSCAPE OF THE MEGALITHS 1934
Paul Nash (1889 – 1946)
- 49.5 X 73.2 CM
- OIL ON CANVAS
- Accession number
Paul Nash was recuperating from a nasty bout of bronchitis in the summer of 1933 when he first came across the Avebury megaliths, the largest prehistoric stone circle in Europe. He recalled, ‘Some were half covered by the grass, others stood up in cornfields were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were wonderful and disquieting, and, as I saw them then, I shall always remember them.’(1) Appropriately, and as was often the case, Nash painted Landscape of the Megalithsfrom memory (conva¬lescence had taken him to the Riviera); the stones are a nexus for the entanglement of the past in present-day landscape.
This is a quietly ‘disquieting’ image. Andrew Causey has criticised it as ‘not so much abstract as empty’, yet the idea of emptiness is crucial.(2) This is a pre-industrial, uninhabited vista, replete with uncanny repetitions; the hilltop copses to left and right look towards Nash’s late oils of Wittenham woods, another prehistoric site. It is dominated by the outlines of two stones, ensnaring a range of fragmentary associa¬tions, to disorientating effect. The larger outline has a druidic circle inscribed in a central position, around which swirl hilltops, clouds and shadows, the near and distant united in orbit. There is a grandeur to the sweeping connection made between the contemporary landscape and the ancient past, matched by Nash’s mysterious aerial perspective, which nods to the pioneering use of aerial archaeology adopted by Alexander Keiller, who bought the Avebury site in 1924 to protect it from the threat of a Marconi wireless station.
The development of hands-off archaeology is paralleled by the painting’s unobtrusive surface and even, un-muddy planes of colour. There are dashes of lichen-like texture within the outlined stones, but above all the avoidance of prominent physical textures draws attention to the picture’s peculiar decomposition of space, serving to distance us from the physicality of the landscape, and instead reduce its atmosphere – the genius loci – to a pure consommé. In a letter (14 April 1934) to his first biographer, Anthony Bertram, Nash insisted that although he wasn’t abandoning painting after Nature, ‘I want a wider aspect, a differ¬ent angle of vision as it were.’(3) Landscape of the Megaliths was first exhibited under the title Landscape Composition, in Unit One’s only exhibition, and it tries to reconcile the ‘battle lines’ that Nash, the group’s driving force, detected between going Modern and being British: ‘internationalism versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile’.(4) Indeed, the decision to rename the painting to its present, relational title draws attention to Nash’s fascination with what he called the ‘mystery of relation¬ship’ – something that was imminently to attract him to Surrealism. Those conceptual battles lines, however, were as much the legacy of Nash’s experiences as an official war artist on the Western Front. Nash was to make a peculiarly English translation of Surrealism, from the perspective of – as he called himself – a ‘war artist without a war’. So too, Landscape of the Megaliths rethinks the famous lines of Rupert Brooke’s already classic poem, ‘The Soldier’ (1914):
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. ...
Landscape of the Megaliths is a vision of the foreign-ness of English fields; it is a vision filtered through the archaeologist’s windscreen, or the binoculars of a new breed of English tourist, motoring out into rural parts armed with Shell guides and ordnance survey maps.
1. Paul Nash, ‘Picture History’, notes on work 1933–45 prepared for his dealers, Albert Tooth and Sons (1943–45), quoted in Andrew Causey, Paul Nash (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 246.
2. Causey (1980), 257.
3. Nash quoted in Paul Nash: Paintings and Watercolours, exh. cat. (London: Tate Gallery, 1975), 83–84.
4. Paul Nash, ‘Going Modern and Being British’, Weekend Review (12 March 1932).
Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009