At the outbreak of the Second World War, fearing aerial bomb attacks, Nash and his wife, Margaret, left their house in London and moved to Oxford. Despite increasingly bad health, Nash immediately became involved in the war effort. He set up an Arts Bureau for War Service. Like Unit One, this group united artists, architects, musicians and writers, and was intended to promote artistic skills in the service of war.
In 1940 Nash was again appointed an official war artist, and was assigned to the Air Ministry. Nash had fantasised about being able to fly since childhood and now his interest in the idea of flight intensified – although, poignantly, his asthma prevented him from ever going up in an aeroplane. Nash visited the Cowley aircraft dump outside Oxford where he made photographs and sketches of wrecked German aircraft. He was fascinated by the distinct personalities of the aeroplanes, whether in flight or destroyed, and called them ‘enchanting monsters’. In his most celebrated painting on this subject, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940–41, he transformed the heap of twisted metal into an animated sea of rising crests and breaking waves.
Nash’s other major war commissions depicted aerial battles. In a 1944 article called ‘Aerial Flowers’, Nash explained how he was inspired to transfer images of nature to the skies. In these near-abstract works he fused together images of aerial flowers, moons, parachutes, clouds and the billowing smoke of the burning aeroplanes. These paintings show Nash’s development of Surrealist principles into an imaginative, neo-Romantic vision of the world around him.