‘If I wanted to make a foreigner understand the mood of a typical English landscape,’ the art critic Eric Newton wrote in April 1939, ‘I would first show him a good Constable and then one or two of John Nash’s best watercolours.’ This is about as good an endorsement any painter could ask for, but Nash is more usually bracketed with, and overshadowed by, his older brother. There have been major exhibitions of Paul Nash’s work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2010 and at Tate Britain three years ago, whereas the last truly substantial retrospective of John’s work was at the Royal Academy in 1967. Andrew Lambirth’s handsome and hefty new book attempts to redress the balance, and it makes a very convincing case for considering John Nash in his own right.
Like his friend Cedric Morris, Nash is often designated an ‘artist-plantsman’, which somehow makes him sound minor or amateur. He was indeed both passionate and knowledgeable about plants, which shows in his many marvellous drawings and paintings of them, and (unlike his brother) he missed out on art school; but he also produced a large and genuinely impressive body of work. He remains most highly regarded for his wood engravings and book illustrations, which are some of the finest of the 20th century, and Lambirth contends that these small-scale works have overshadowed his work as a painter.
The greatest strength of this book is that it makes you look again at Nash’s paintings, which are often a good deal less straightforward than they at first appear. Nash knew and understood the English landscape in the way of someone who actually lived and worked in it (hence Lambirth’s subtitle), and he made regular excursions in search of what he called ‘good bits’ — in the words of his friend Ronald Blythe, ‘some twist and turn in the land, some drawing together of elm and oak or, favourite of all, some old quarry or working springing its surprises below the cultivated surface’.
Human figures rarely appear in the paintings, and Lambirth relates this absence, and an underlying atmosphere of melancholy, to Nash’s experiences in the first world war, in which he saw brutal action before being employed as a war artist. Soldiers are the focus of such well-known trench pictures as ‘Over the Top’ and ‘A French Highway’, both painted in 1918; but in the same year’s ‘The Cornfield’, and most later pictures, human presence is merely implied by evidence of cultivation. Lambirth touchingly suggests that the stooks in the foreground of ‘The Cornfield’, which is perhaps Nash’s best known painting, are intended as an ‘image of plenty gathered in… a celebration and giving thanks for having survived the war’.
Such observations show Lambirth at his best, but his book fails to find a satisfactory way to integrate Nash’s work with his life. The narrative aspires to the chronological, but is frequently interrupted with titled sections giving an overview of the individual lives of the most significant of Nash’s friends, some of whom have already been introduced piecemeal. This leads to a certain amount of repetition and chronological incoherence, as when a section on Ronald Blythe, extensively quoting his wonderful descriptions of the daily round at John and Christine Nash’s house in the Stour Valley, only appears at the end of the book after both Nashes have died. Similarly, comments about people are sometimes irrationally placed when they were made, so that, for example, Nash’s recollection of his important friend and patron Edward Marsh comes in 1976, rather than when the two men first met in around 1912.
Lambirth writes illuminatingly on Nash’s relations with Edward Bawden and with Eric Ravilious (whose work comes in for an entertaining but not entirely fair pasting), but elsewhere grows strangely incurious. Unable to decide quite how Christine Nash dealt with her husband’s recurring infidelities, he writes that such matters are in any case ‘the stuff of biography rather than art history’.
This suggests a certain lack of engagement, and Lambirth is too inclined to allow others to do the biographical work for him, with long quotations more or less plonked on the page, rather than properly assimilated into the narrative. All that said, this large and generously illustrated book should do much to revive the reputation of an exceptional and unjustly neglected artist.