Paul Nash

Equivalents for the Megaliths


Not on display

Paul Nash 1889–1946
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 457 × 660 mm
frame: 627 × 835 × 80 mm
Purchased 1970

Display caption

‘Megaliths’ are great standing stones, the remains of ancient temples in places such as Stonehenge; this work was inspired by the stones at Avebury, on the Wiltshire Downs. Here Nash brings together Britain’s most advanced cultural objects with its most ancient: the geometric forms are similar to those found in contemporary abstract sculpture, but are also ‘equivalents’ for prehistoric standing stones. Nash had an enduring fascination with the mystical qualities of inanimate objects. The abstract forms draw on the emotional presence of ancient monuments, integrated with the landscape, but also provide a powerful element of abstract design.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Paul Nash 1889–1946

T01251 Equivalents for the Megaliths 1935

Inscribed ‘Paul Nash’ b.l.
Canvas, 18 x 26 (46 x 66).
Purchased at Christie’s (Grant-in-Aid) 1970.
ColI: Bought by Lancelot Sieveking from the artist, 1935, and sold by him at Christie’s, 30 October 1970 (127, repr.), bt. Roland, Browse and Delbanco for Tate Gallery.
Exh: XXI Biennale, Venice, 1938 (British Pavilion, 12); Tate Gallery, March–May 1948 (40), and English tour, May–September (18); British Art and the Modem Movement 1930–40, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, October–November 1962 (74, not reproduced, although catalogue note says it is); Art in Britain 1930–40, Marlborough Fine Art, March–April 1965 (106, repr.).
Lit: Anthony Bertram, Paul Nash, 1955, pp.242–3, 331; John Rothenstein, Paul Nash (The Masters, No. 85), 1967, p.7, repr. pl. VIII, in colour.
Repr: Herbert Read, Paul Nash, 1944, pl.17, in colour; Margot Eates (ed.), Paul Nash, 1948, pl.75, in colour; Studio, CXXXVII, 1949, p. 1, in colour; John Rothenstein, Paul Nash, 1961, pl.6, in colour.

In a letter to the then Director of the Tate Gallery (6 November 1951), the artist’s widow wrote that T01251 had ‘a beautiful design, and is, in my opinion, the most important of the Megalith series of paintings’.

T01251 deals with three areas of interest which, although of permanent concern to Nash, were rarely brought together in his work in a way at once so fully integrated and so individually explicit. These are a concern with the abstract qualities of structure and design; a dream-like super-reality having links with Surrealism; and the English landscape and its history.

In a letter to The Times, 2 June 1933, announcing the formation of Unit One, and reprinted in Unit One, 1934, pp. 10–11, Nash wrote: ‘Only the most stubborn can dispute that English art has always suffered from one crippling weakness—the lack of structural purpose. With few exceptions our artists have painted “by the light of nature". Even among the best, a fine or subtle composition seems the work of chance, or, surely, it would occur more often. This immunity from the responsibility of design has become a tradition; we are frequently invited to admire the “unconscious” beauties of the British School—"so faithful to Nature". Nature we need not deny, but art, we are inclined to feel, should control ... It may be observed that we are now heading for a new revival… of… the Nature cult in some form or another. Against this are opposed a few artists anxious to go forward from the point they have reached’. To ‘the majority of their contemporaries… they seem to be lacking in reverence for Nature as such… Their answer is that they are interested in other matters which seem to them more engrossing, more immediate. Design, for instance—considered as a structural pursuit; imagination, explored apart from literature or metaphysics.’

In another statement, published in Unit One 1934 (p. 81), Nash explained how the concerns described above might be linked with a response to the English landscape: ‘Towards the end of the eighteenth century, William Blake, then, and often now, called a madman, perceived among many things the hidden significance of the land he always called Albion. For him, Albion possessed great spiritual personality and he constantly inveighed against Nature, the appearance of which he mistrusted as a false reality. At the same time, his work was immensely influenced by the country he lived in. His poetry literally came out of England. Blake’s life was spent in seeking to discover symbols for what his “inward” eye perceived, but which alas, his hand could seldom express. Turner, again, sought to break through the deceptive mirage which he could depict with such ease, to a reality more real, in his imagination. In the same way, we, today, must find new symbols to express our reaction to environment. In some cases this will take the form of an abstract art, in others we may look for some different nature of imaginative research. But in whatever form, it will be a subjective art.’

‘For myself, my sympathies are too clearly exposed by this essay to need further explanation. Last summer, I walked in a field near Avebury where two rough monoliths stand up, sixteen feet high, miraculously patterned with black and orange lichen, remnants of the avenue of stones which led to the Great Circle. A mile away, a green pyramid casts a gigantic shadow. In the hedge, at hand, the white trumpet of a convolvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun. In my art I would solve such an equation… ’

At Lance Sieveking’s request, Paul Nash wrote a statement about T01251. On the original statement, dated 4 May 1937, Lance Sieveking wrote: ‘I bought the painting from Paul off the easel at 3 Eldon Road for £65. A little later I asked him to write a provenance, and this is it.’ Nash’s statement reads, in full: ‘Equivalents for the Megaliths. In the fields a few miles north of Marlborough, standing or prone, are the huge stones, remains of the avenue, or the circles of the Temple of Avebury. The appearance of one or more of these megaliths, blotched with ocreish lichens, or livid with the bruises of weathering is sufficiently dramatic in a field of stubble, or in the grass meadows. But it is dramatic in two different ways. These groups are impressive as forms opposed to their surroundings, both by virtue of their actual composition of lines masses and planes, directions and volume; and in the irrational sense, their suggestion of a super-reality. They are dramatic, also, however, as symbols of their antiquity, as hallowed remnants of an almost unknown civilization.’

‘In designing the picture I wished to avoid the very powerful influence of this antiquarian suggestion, and to insist only upon the dramatic qualities of a composition of shapes equivalent to the prone or upright stones, simply as upright, or prone, or leaning masses, grouped together in a scene of open fields and hills. Beyond that resolve the picture cannot be traced, logically. It developed inevitably in its own way.’

Nash’s work in the period 1928–35 contains much close comparative material in terms both of a concern with abstract form and of an overt concern with prehistory. An exposed, pure cylindrical form directly comparable with the upright in T01251, occurs in ‘Mantelpiece’, 1928 (crossed at 90° by a set-square), and in the watercolour ‘studio, New House, Rye’, 1932. In both these works it could be read as possibly-representing a large roll of corrugated paper. The watercolour’ Peveril Point, Dorset’, 1934, represents an upright column in the form of a pure cylinder, against the sea. In ‘Event on the Downs’, 1933 (repr. Eates, op. cit., pl.72), a tennis ball, treated as an elementary disc or sphere crossed by a linear ‘s’, is juxtaposed with a gnarled tree trunk. The watercolour ‘Poised Objects’ (repr. Eates, pl.68) represents elementary forms, spheres, cones, and a simple crystal-like structure. Four works with strong abstract elements have a particularly close connection with T01251. These are ‘Objects in Relation’, 1935 (canvas, 20x24 in.; coll. St Paul’s School, London; repr. Eates, pl. 74), in which an egg-shaped object leans against a monolith incised with a rectilinear grid, against a downland landscape containing rectilinear monoliths; ‘Landscape Composition’, c. 1934 (tempera on hardboard, approx. 5 x 5¿ in.), a study for ‘Objects in Relation’, in which the distant monoliths arc cylindrical; ‘Mineral Objects’, 1935 (canvas, 20 x 24 in.; repr. Apollo, LXXIV, April 1961, p. 128), in which play is made on the silhouettes and sections of two geometrical forms in a landscape; and ‘Design for Today’, 1934 (canvas) which shows three elements of a type also seen in T01251—a pure upright cylinder, an abstract form bearing regular grid lines, and a long box-like form of rectangular section of which two visible faces (not one, as in T01251), bear straight lines parallel to its edge. Nash’s exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in 1935 included two works entitled ‘Abstraction’.

Explicit treatment of the theme of prehistory occurs in the following works reproduced in Eates: ‘Landscape of the Megaliths’, 1934 (pl.83), ‘Landscape of the Megaliths’, 1937 (pl. 76), ‘The Nest of the Wild Stones’, 1937 (pl. 85), and ‘Circle of the Monoliths’, 1938 (pl. 82). The Nash exhibition at Temple Newsam House, Leeds, in 1943, included works entitled ‘Avebury’ (54) and ‘silbury Hill’ (55).
Four years before painting T01251, Nash wrote about de Chirico (The Listener, 29 April 1931). Writing of those paintings by de Chirico in which no events, in the conventional sense, are depicted, he said ‘He has, in his best moments, an extraordinary power to make things happen in a picture . . . They happen with all the startling event of a vision or a dream.’ In his introduction to the catalogue of his exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in 1937, Nash wrote that for years he had been ‘interpreting the phenomena of Nature without ever missing men or women from the scene.’

'Gradually, however, the landscape, as a scene, ceased to be absorbing. Some drama of beings, after all, seemed to be necessary. A few attempts to escape into the refuge of abstract design proved me unsuited. Bur at this point I began to discover the significance of the so-called inanimate object. Henceforth Nature became endowed for me with new life. The landscape, too, seemed now possessed of a different animation. To contemplate the personal beauty of stone and leaf, bark and shell, and to exalt them to be the principals of imaginary happenings, became a new-interest. To imagine instead of to interpret…’

Although this passage is most directly related to the paintings of natural ‘ found-objects’ in landscapes of the years immediately after T01251 was painted, it helps explain the significance for Nash of isolating in T01251 a group of improbable objects in a landscape. The distinction between Chirico’s vision and Nash’s related intentions is clarified in this passage from a letter dated 14 April 1934 written by Nash to Anthony Bertram (quoted in Bertram, op. cit., p.231): ‘I feel I am beginning now to find my way between the claims of “Abstractions” and pure interpretation. As you know, I am far too interested in the character of landscape and natural forms generally—from a pictorial point of view—ever to abandon painting after Nature of some kind or other. But I want a wider aspect a different angle of vision as it were. This I am beginning to find through symbolism and in the power of association— not the rather freakish unlikely association of objects, so much as the right association as I feel it to be ... I desire to penetrate further—or if you like fling my net wider to include a relationship of spiritual personality—only I suppose I must find another word for spiritual, or be misunderstood. I confess I have not yet reached a very-articulate stage but perhaps you sec my drift.’

Among the large number of photographs taken by Nash which were presented to the Tate Gallery in 1972 by the Paul Nash Trust, there are several which show elementary forms—spheres, cylinders, etc.—grouped in abstract arrangements. The forms are usually extremely small, but become scaleless in isolation. Although the groupings have a general relationship to the central group in T01251, no photograph of a version of this particular grouping has been found.

On the reverse of T01251 is a painting of part of the trunk of a palm tree with what may be clouds and waves.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.


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