“Pulsating with Life”: Young British
Artists and the Great War

- David Boyd Haycock
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     Nevinson spent a month back at the Front in the summer of 1917, but his official war works were disappointing in comparison to his earlier paintings. When Thomas Derrick visited Nevinson in October he was concerned that the artist had self-censored in both style and subject matter. As Derrick explained in a report to Masterman, Nevinson had “avoided the more revolting aspects of the business”, and had “restrained himself – almost to the point of dullness”. He added that when he next visited Nevinson, he would advise him that his “unrestrained, savage self, can appear in subsequent work, without giving offence in official quarters” [33]. At least one of Nevinson’s official paintings did cause offence: Paths of Glory (1917, Imperial War Museum, London) depicted the corpses of two Tommies lying beneath an entanglement of barbed-wire. The War Office artist informed the artist that he was not permitted to depict dead Allied soldiers. In the face of such appalling death and destruction, such a constraint was absurd. Nevinson was enraged; rather than withdraw the offending picture from his exhibition, Nevinson obscured the bodies with a strip of brown paper, writing the word “CENSORED” across it. Controversies such as the one this did nothing for Nevinson’s declining mental health, and his father feared that Richard was “almost insane with anxiety”. Diagnosed by a neurologist as suffering from “nerves and acute insomnia”, Richard headed to Cornwall with his wife for a holiday. But he could not cope with what he called “endless leisure for brooding”, and they returned to London. Painting could not excise the ghosts of what he had witnessed in France, and Henry Nevinson would soon be writing privately of his son’s “haunted mind” [34]. The artist would never really fully recover from his experiences in the War, and over the following two decades his reputation slowly declined, from that of one of the greatest recorders of warfare in the twentieth century, to that of a bitter and rather mediocre painter.
      It was Nevinson’s Slade contemporary, Paul Nash, who would prove to be the other great young British recorder of the War. Nash came relatively late to the art world, and trained initially as a graphic artist, before spending just over a year at the Slade. When the War broke out he was establishing a reputation as a minor painter of subtle watercolours of trees, gardens and landscapes; an understated modernist who retained links with the English Romantic tradition, he had shown no particular interest in either the Futurist or Vorticist movements. As his wife later recalled, Nash was

[…] an ardent believer in both the uselessness and utter impossibility of so barbaric a solution of world problems. To Paul, it was more simple, for he immediately felt that as an Englishman it was his duty to fight for his country. He had a very clear and simple conception of his duty towards his country, which he passionately loved, and although he was the last human being in the world to tolerate the horror and cruelty of war, he had an immediate and firm conviction that he must fight for England.
As I remember him now, there comes back to me an Elizabethan atmosphere about his few remarks on the necessity of fighting for a country which meant poetry and beauty to him as an artist, and freedom of thought and action to him as an Englishman. And so I dumbly accepted his decision to enlist at once in the Artists Rifles… [35]

      Nash spent the next two years on home service, before undergoing officer training; he was gazetted second-lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment at the end of 1916. By early 1917 he was on the Western Front. Luckily for Nash it was a quiet time in the Line, and he was able to draw, making sketches of the blasted woods, a ruined church, a scarred hill; he was fascinated by the destruction, and in March he asked his wife to send him a copy of Nevinson’s etching, Ypres After the First Bombardment. “I should like to have it if possible”, he told her. “It is part of the world I’m interested in” [36]. The sight of ruined houses behind the Line was “wonderful”, and he told Margaret. “I begin to believe in the Vorticist doctrine of destruction almost” [37]. Then on the night of 25 May 1917, a week before he was to lead his men over the top, Nash fell from a parapet and into a trench, breaking a rib. By 1 June he was back in London. According to Margaret Nash’s account, when his company went into action shortly afterwards “they practically disappeared under an overwhelming barrage which had caught them in the advance” [38].  As Nash acknowledged, his escape “was a queer lucky accident” [39].
      In June 1917 the watercolours he had painted at the Front were exhibited in London. They were well received by the critics, and this success eventually led to his recruitment into the Ministry of Information’s scheme of official artists. In November he returned to the Ypres Salient where he would make a series of searing drawings in the aftermath of the Allied armies’ Passchendaele offensive. In a now famous letter to his wife, Nash wrote of the terrible sights he had witnessed:

I have just returned (last night) from a visit … up the line & I shall not forget it as long as I live. I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country ever conceived by Dante or Poe – unspeakable utterly indescribable. In the 15 drawings I made I may give you some vague idea of its horror, but only being in and of it can ever make you sensible of its dreadful nature & what men in France have to face. We all have a vague notion of the terrors of a battle ... but no pen or drawing can convey this country – the normal setting of the battles taking place day and night, month after month. Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of the ceremonies in this war: no glimmer of God’s hand is seen. Sunset & sunrise are blasphemous mockeries to man; only the black rain out of the bruised & swollen clouds or through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green white water, the roads & tracks are covered in inches of slime. The black dying trees ooze & sweat and the shells never cease. They whine & plunge over head, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses & mules ; annihilating, maiming, maddening : they plunge into the grave which is this land, one huge grave and cast up the poor dead. O it is unspeakable, Godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested & curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls [40].

      According to his wife, during the few weeks Nash spent working in the Ypres Salient, he

[…] was in far greater danger than he had ever been while engaged in trench warfare… This determination to see the war, combined with an astonishing outburst of energy, enabled him to do anything up to 60 to 70 drawings in the actual front line within a week. Some of these water colours… actually had mud spattered upon them from nearby exploding shells, which he at times worked in to help with the colour of the drawing [41].

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[33] Thomas Derrick, report on his visit to Nevinson’s studio on 15 October 1917, Imperial War Museum, London, MS 266A/6, f. 192.
[34] Henry Nevinson, Diary, 15 March and 3 April 1918, Bod. MS Eng. misc. e. 620/3.
[35] Margaret Nash, ‘Memoirs of Paul Nash, 1913-1946’ (1951), Tate Gallery Archive, London, MS 769.2.6, f. 7-8.
[36] Paul Nash to Margaret Nash, late March 1917, reproduced in Paul Nash, Outline: An Autobiography and Other Writings (London: Faber and Faber, 1949), p. 192.
[37] Paul Nash to Margaret Nash, 21 March 1917, Tate Gallery Archive, London.
[38] Margaret Nash (1951), f. 13.
[39] Paul Nash to Gordon Bottomley, August 1917, Abbot & Bertram (1955), p. 85.
[40] Paul Nash to Margaret Nash, 17 November 1917, Tate Gallery Archive 8313/1/1/162, f. 3-4.
[41] Margaret Nash (1951), op cit. f. 16-17.