The thing looked at me suddenly like a great inundating sea, a vast tide moving across the fields, the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain and then nothing moves, it is not water or even ice; it is something static and dead. By moonlight this waning moon one could swear they began to move and twist and turn as they did in the air. Simon Grant: That was how the British artist, Paul Nash, described this painting, Totes Mere (or Dead Sea). It was painted in 1940 a few months after the Battle of Britain and at the height of the London blitz and while his contemporaries were painting heroic dog fights or portraits of officers and also life on the home front, Nash did something much more original. Dead Sea was seen as an icon of anti German-ness not least by Nash. He had witnessed for himself the horrors of the First World War and wanted this painting to boost the patriotic sentiment. In March 1940, Nash and his wife Margaret moved to Oxford where he was appointed official war artist by the Air Ministry. He was conscientious about his new project, visiting local air bases at Harwell and Abingdon as well as pestering the Ministry for aeroplane magazines and photographs of German bombers. His big interest was an aircraft salvage dump in Crowley, the Metal Produce Recovery Unit. Now it’s part of open farmland but back then it was part of the Morris car factory. British Spitfires and German Heinkle bombers were brought here from across the country to be recycled and salvaged. The depot was enormous. It spread over 100 acres of farmland and employed over 1500 men and women. It got so big the area was given place names like Battle Road and Spitfire Road. Nash was deeply moved by the place. He feverishly sketched and photographed the piles of twisted metal. He talked about the ghostly presence of these planes, unaware that it was the site of an old battlefield and where he said a pervasive force hung in the heavy air. Nash was fascinated by the anthropomorphic nature of planes, he called them beautiful monsters and killer whales and thought that they were the real protagonists of the war. Nash’s painting has often been seen as a great piece of Second World War propaganda but I think there are far more personal reasons why he painted it. Nash suffered from acute asthma which is a common enough disease now but in his day was seriously debilitating and it meant that he couldn’t fly, and he talked at the time about asthma invading his body. He called it his monster parasite and people who have experienced asthma first hand will know exactly how he felt, and you get a really good sense of the claustrophobia he must have experienced during these asthma attacks when you look at his painting. When he wasn’t ill he painted from his home on the ground floor of this house in Oxford - which is now used as a boarding house by d’Overbroeck’s College, an independent school. Here in his frail physical condition, made worse by his asthma, Nash looked out into the garden and became obsessed by the threat of the German aerial invasion. He would scan the sky for parachutes, what he called Roses of Death. But I think there is more to this feeling of claustrophobia than Nash’s battle with asthma. In 1935 he started having a relationship with a surrealist artist, Eileen Aegar, and it was an intense and frustrating relationship and in his letters to her he comes across as this needy, even jealous neurotic. At the height of their affair he had suggested they split up but then said later “If we break now it is not because we are tired. We break at the peak of our flight where we have climbed dizzily like birds who make love in mid air heedless of where they soar.” However by the time Nash had finished Dead Sea those soaring birds had turned into piles of wreckage. Aegar maintained her distance and the increasingly jealous Nash buried himself in his painting, so Dead Sea created in the midst of a World War was to be one of Nash’s most personal paintings.