Paul Nash (1889 – 1946)


71.1 X 91.4 CM
Accession number


With Solstice of the Sunflower (1945), this is one of the artist’s final two oil paintings. The year after it was made, Nash, who had been diagnosed with bronchial asthma in 1933, caught pneumonia and died on the 11th July, aged only 57.


He had long been fascinated by the mysteries of landscape and man’s involvement with it. As an official War Artist in World War I, he witnessed the near annihilation of both, and painted it in We Are Making a New World (1918)[1]. Over the desolate craters and shattered trees, however, shafts of sunlight seem to promise nature’s ability to renew itself. A similar promise seems to be inherent in the heavenly body looming through the clouds above the WWII commission Totes Meer (1940-1), [2] providing a reassuring reference point over a landscape created by a mass of smashed German aircraft that, as Nash’s title points out, appear at first to be a dead sea.


In 1943, Nash had discovered James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough [3], a study of religious myth which argues that fertility cults the world over underpin the Christian promise of renewal through death. Nash assimilated this into his own personal mythology alongside the lifelong influence of the more devout William Blake; particularly ‘Ah Sunflower’ from Songs of Experience (1794). It’s not hard to imagine the motives behind Nash’s deepening spiritual interests as he faced death, so soon after that of so many others in the war. The flowers themselves, irresistibly iconic to visual artists both before and after, grew at his friend Hilda Harrisson’s house in Boar’s Hill, Oxfordshire, and his own garden in nearby Banbury. [4] With both visual and imaginative stimulus, he began


“Four pictures in which the image of the Sunflower is exalted to take the part of the Sun. In three of the pictures the flower stands in the sky in place of the Sun. But in the ‘Solstice’ the spent sun shines from its zenith encouraging the sunflower in the dual role of sun and firewheel to perform its mythological purpose. The sun appears to be whipping the sunflower like a top. The Sunflower Wheel tears over the hill cutting a path through the standing corn and bounding into the air as it gathers momentum. This is the blessing of the Midsummer Fire.” [5]

He didn’t live long enough to paint the The Sunflower Rises and The Sunflower Sets, but the British Council’s painting shows the whole process in microcosm. The background is stormy, atmospheric and Romantic in a manner that owes a lot to the ink and watercolour wash [6] of Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Cosmic Drama seems to be the tone, and the choppy waves of the right hand bottom corner remind the viewer – and possibly Nash himself – of the earlier war landscapes. In the foreground, the head of a sunflower has detached itself from the socket of its stalk, as a soul might leave a body, and now hovers in the clouds. Inspired by Frazer, Nash suggests how the flower got its name. He paints petals as licks of flame that photosynthetically draw their energy from the sun, and the seed head with a thick, black, light-absorbing weight of paint that suggests the moon passing in front of it, and blocking it temporarily from sight.


Tom Overton, 2010.

[1] London, Imperial War Museum
[2] London, Tate. Oil on canvas, support: 1016 x 1524 mm frame: 1167 x 1680 x 97 mm.
[3] The Golden Bough (2 vols., 1890; 2nd edn, 3 vols., 1900; 3rd edn, 12 vols., 1911–14).
[4] Chronology from Jemima Montagu, Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape (London: Tate, 2003).
[5] TGA , cit. James King, Interior Landscapes: a Life of Paul Nash (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987), p.218.

[6]In 1945, Nash had exhibited his own watercolours at Arthur Tooth’s Gallery and at National War Pictures, an exhibition of works by War Artists’ Advisory Committee at the Royal Academy.