Paul Nash

Lavengro and Isopel in the Dingle


Not on display

Paul Nash 1889–1946
Ink, graphite and gouache on paper
Support: 464 × 370 mm
frame: 742 × 635 × 58 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973

Display caption

This is an illustration for George Borrow’s novel of gipsy life, 1851. On the left is the hero, Lavengro, whose name translates from Romany as ‘wordsmith’. He is teaching Armenian to Isopel (on the right) in order to deflect her romantic interest in him. Nash’s interest in this imaginative portrayal of the gypsy life reflects, perhaps, his romantic fascination with a lost, idyllic relationship with nature. A ‘dingle’ is a deep, wooded valley.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Paul Nash 1889–1946

T01782 Lavengro and Isopel in the Dingle 1912–13

Inscribed ‘PN’ (monogram) b.r. and ‘Nash’.
Ink, pencil and wash on paper mounted on cardboard, 18¼x 14.1½ (46.5 x 37).
Presented, by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973.
Coll: Sir Michael Sadler (purchased from the artist at Dorien Leigh Gallery 1913); acquired by Leicester Galleries 1944; Sir Gerald Kelly; sold Christies 12 July 1973 (154), bt. Fine Art Society Ltd.
Exh: Drawings by Paul Nash and John Nash, Dorien Leigh Gallery, November 1913–January 1914 (21); Oxford University Arts Club, Black Hall, St Giles, Oxford, October–November 1931 (18a); A Selection of Pictures, Drawings and Sculpture from the Collection of the late Sir Michael Sadler, Leicester Galleries, January–February 1944 (37); Tate Gallery, March–May 1948 (73) and English tour; The Arts and Crafts Movement, Fine Art Society Ltd, October 1973 (p.78, repr.)
Lit: Anthony Bertram, Paul Nash, 1923, pp. 14–17 (repr.); Margot Eates (ed.), Paul Nash, 1948, pp.46, 63; Paul Nash, Outline, 1049, pp.76, 79, 100–104, (repr.); Anthony Bertram, Paul Nash, The Portrait of an Artist, 1955, p.65; Gordon Bottomley and Paul Nash, Poet and Painter, 1965, pp.27, 30 34, 44, 53, 57, 66, 89; Margot Eates, Paul Nash, The Master of the Image, 1973, PP–13–14; 95 (repr. pl.2b.).
Repr: The Gypsy, May 1916.

The subject of the drawing derives from George Borrow’s semi-autobiographical novel Lavengro, first published in 1851 and enjoying a particular revival during the first decade of the century as a result of the naturalist reaction to nineteenth-century aestheticism and the hot-house of the fin-de-siecle. This choice marked Nash’s own turning away from Rossetti under the more astringent influence of Blake and Borrow in the direction of what was to become the Georgian movement. In Outline, 1949, p.79 Nash wrote: ‘I emerged into the open spaces. Led by the voice of Lavengro I followed onto the heath.’

Nash also described there (pp.99–100) how his last link with Rossetti, through his poetry, was broken when he fell out of love with Sybil Fountain, who had inspired many drawings and poems, and he no longer wanted to write. But although he ascribes this event in Outline to autumn 1911, a letter to Mercia Oakley (‘yesterday I broke my dream’) dated 15 March shows that the event took place in spring 1912, after he had begun work on ‘Lavengro and Isopel in the Dingle’.

However Nash acknowledged (op. cit. pp.100–101) that despite his ‘break’ with Rossetti he was not yet free of Pre-Raphaelitism:

I now tried to put its teaching into practice on a new theme. The character of Lavengro still fascinated me; more than ever the adventures of the heath and the open road became my romantic food ... My subject … was well in the tradition, “Lavengro teaching Isopel Armenian in the Dingle”. It was a situation that had often appealed to me. The lonely cup in the open fields encompassing in its depths the forge, the little horse and cart and those strange beings, the roving scholar and that attractive enigma Isopel Berners of Long Melford. The tentative relation of these two, so dramatically met, thrown together like shipwrecked survivors on a deserted island, stirred my imagination. How would it end ? I knew it never should, for it had that mysterious quality of all beginnings; the slow advance of dawn, the almost invisible movements of an opening flower. But it had no purpose, no destiny. Borrow, for I did not doubt that it represented himself, would never allow nature to take its course, as it were, Isopel might sigh and he might want her, but it was obvious that he was tied up in one of his perverse knots and could only fall back on his usual habit of teaching or preaching something for which his audience had no ear. This had a certain virtue in my eyes. It fixed the figures of this drama; they resembled those on the Grecian Urn described by Keats, they could not move, or alternatively they could not stop moving. As I saw them they sat immobile, except for Lavengro’s dictatorial finger endlessly declining. Between them the wood fire of green ash lit up their forms and faces and gave a vague design to the surrounding trees of the dingle.

Nash did not choose a specific incident for his drawing. Lavengro attempts to give Isopel Armenian lessons on several occasions though she is not an enthusiastic pupil. The first and the last are described, the others implicit. The first in Chapter lxxxix is on the evening of the day of their first meeting, when Lavengro vanquished the Flaming Tinman, the tinker with whom Isopel had been travelling. (They continue to live in the dingle for the rest of the book.) On this occasion the lesson is interrupted by the ‘man in black’. The final occasion is in Chapter xcv just before the violent thunderstorm that forces both of them into the same tent, from which compromising situation they are saved by Lavengro’s last encounter—with the postillion who has, more or less, been struck by lightning.

Like crossroads and forges Borrow regarded dingles as expressly poetic. The dingle in Lavengro is described first at the end of Chapter lxxxii by Mr Petulengro, Lavengro’s traveller friend. He recommends it as a retreat but regards it as a dreary sinister place: ‘Brother I am fond of solitude, but not that kind of solitude’. Lavengro gives his impression at the end of the chapter:

It was a deep hollow in the midst of a wide field, the shelving sides were overgrown with trees and bushes, a belt of sallows surrounded it on the top, a steep winding path led down into the depths, practicable however for a light cart like mine; at the bottom was an open space, and there I pitched my tent and there I contrived to put up my forge.

Nash said, he found it difficult to visualise the dingle (Outline, pp. 101–2):

I was not well acquainted with dingles and I felt particularly uncertain of their usual dimensions. The Lavengro dingle seemed curiously large, yet if its mouth opened too wide it would lose its character as a dingle. I am sure Ruskin would have condemned the place I eventually evolved as being against nature and against Pre-Raphaelitism and more particularly had he known it was composed from sketches made in Richmond Park, where so far as I could discover there are no dingles.

Nash’s interest in the genius loci was certainly likely to be aroused by the dingle. Another interest may have been the battle of opposing forces within it—a theme common to many of Nash’s works even at that time e.g. ‘Angel and Devil’ and ‘Pyramids in the Sea’. Lavengro struggles to shoe his horse with fire and steel, he fights off a fit of the horrors (a battle with the Evil One), he physically fights the Flaming Tinman, he wages a wordy battle with a popish priest and he tries to teach Isopel Armenian.

In the book the Armenian lessons either actually or by implication took place in the evening, but never specifically at night though there are descriptions of the dingle at night. (Chapter lxxxiv and Chapter xcvii). However as in many contemporaneous drawings Nash made it a night scene:

illuminated only by starlight and a fitful campfire which might easily exaggerate proportions of form and distance. –Beyond the radius of the firelight the ground mounted into the uncertain darkness of shrubs and trees until the rim of the cup showed against the sky. This steeply receding wall took on a vaguely pyramidal design under the influence of obscurity, and this was repeated in the two figures each of which had the suggestion of a pyramid form.(Outline, p. 102).

For the model for Isopel Berners Nash took his friend and confidante Mercia Oakley, although he does not give her name in Outline, where he wrote: ‘About this time I met a gypsy-like girl who shared my sympathies. Our friendship was one of comrades which suggested that it might develop sentimentally if we chose.’ In fact his correspondence with her dates from 1909. They had met through her godmother Mrs George Grimsdale who was a neighbour of the Nash’s at Iver Heath. Mercia married Mrs Grimsdale’s nephew by marriage, Gerald Grimsdale, in 1916.

Unlike Borrow’s character Mercia was ‘dark complexioned with almost black eyes’. The description of Isopel in Lavengro (Chapter LXXXV) was of ‘an exceedingly tall woman, or rather girl, for she could scarcely have been above eighteen, she was dressed in a tight bodice and a blue stuff gown; hat bonnet or cap she had none and her hair which was flaxen hung down on her shoulders unconfined; her complexion was fair, and her features handsome with a determined open expression.’

As model for Lavengro, Nash selected Rupert Lee, then a conspicuous figure at the Slade where he was known as ‘the Man from Mexico’. Nash had already officially left the Slade at this time and he did not know Lee personally. He describes how he approached and asked Lee to sit for him and the ensuing teaparty (Outline, p. 103). Lee, he wrote, had ‘in those days a gypsy look about him. At the same time his face had an intellectual structure and his very finely modelled features a serious, half-sarcastic expression. He was largely built with a big head for his wide hat.’ Nash frequently referred to him as ‘Lavengro’ in subsequent letters to Mercia Oakley.

It is not known exactly when Nash first came in contact with Borrow’s work. In Outline, p.76, he wrote ‘The vivid picture of England and the imaginative projection of her inhabitants as conceived by Borrow I had found nothing like it. But still the personality of Rossetti dominated.’ John Nash told the compiler (letter 28 March 1974) that he did not think Lavengro was a book which would have been available in the family library and suggested Pellew-Harvey as the source: he added that he thought Nash (like himself) was more influenced by Pellew-Harvey than was generally recognised.

Pellew-Harvey stayed at Iver Heath in the autumn of 1911 and it is perhaps significant that the first reference to Lavengro in Nash’s letters occurs a few weeks later. A letter to Gordon Bottomley (Poet and Painter, 27) dated 22 November 1911 suggests all the enthusiasm of recent discovery: ‘I say isn’t Lavengro one of the finest works ever writ!—real poetry. I’m trying to make a drawing of the fight with the Flaming Tinman!’

This subject is no more referred to and the next reference is in a letter to Mercia Oakley (20 in the typescript copy of Nash’s letters to her in the Victoria and Albert Museum) datable to some time before 5 March 1912. Nash writes that he has begun a good drawing of Lavengro, that it is going well and that although it is Lent he is proposing to discontinue his deliberate abstinence from making ‘designs’ (suggesting he had been concentrating on nature).

On 15 March (Oakley 25, V & A) we find Nash writing to Mercia that he has seen Rupert Lee and that he was pleased with the idea of sitting for Lavengro and looking forward to meeting her, though he was afraid he was sure to call her ‘Miss Berners’.

A letter to Gordon Bottomley (Poet and Painter 32) of 26 March then tells of the struggle Nash has been having with the drawing:

I have been rather silent too being busy with a drawing of dire importance. ‘Tis of Isobel [sic] & Lavengro in the dingle and I have thought of little else for weeks. First I looked cannily around for my models and lo! found first Isobel then Lavengro in real living friends a girl who could have been an Isobel & a man who was a Lavengro. Of these I made two good drawings—at least they were good compared with any I have ever done before, and then after thinking & walking & exploring & experimenting evolved a good dingle. Then came a‘orrid tussle between Paul and the picture. The picture said at the end of each day—ah! you’re beaten now, Im like nothing on earth Im a beastly mess, youcant right me, tear me up. But I said I’m damned well going to right you, so goodnight & blew out the light. And at last I got its back broken and now its comparatively docile tho a little odd. Soon I shall send it for you to see.

However, he wrote again on 8 April (Poet and Painter, 35), ‘Alas alas the Lavengro drawing has failed. But I’m going to begin it new directly & tackle it in pen and wash. I became muddled you know and dreadfully unsimple.’ And he also told Mercia Oakley (Oakley 34, V & A) that he felt very sick about the failure at first after so much time and effort but had learnt a good deal from the experience. What seemed to bother him most was that it was going to delay the start ‘of his war with the publishers’, which suggests he was still thinking of earning his living by book illustration, the idea which started him off as a student at Bolt Court in 1908.

Nash also describes something of this in Outline (p. 104) though it is difficult to be sure of the precise sequence of events. It explains the heavily rubbed and worked over surface of the drawing itself:

The study for Lavengro proved successful enough and accorded well with the figure of Isopel. These two set in the cup of the dingle became a design which had some elements of structure, but which I began by ruining with an over elaboration of pen and ink work. I showed it to William Nicholson who looked at it with obvious misgiving... Lavengro was taken home and submitted to a scrubbing with a nail-brush and warm water, by which it got rid of its Pre-Raphaelitism and emerged with a broken surface pleasant to work over with a pencil and on which to emphasise those virtues of drawing which bad been obscured by pen-and-ink.

A letter from Emily Bottomley dated 5 August acknowledging a parcel of several drawings (Poet and Painter, p.44) shows that ‘Lavengro’ had reached a stage when it was fit to be shown to Bottomley. By the beginning of January 1913 Nash had been working on it again and once more sent it to Bottomley: (Poet and Painter, 57, letter misdated November 1912 according to evidence provided by Andrew Causey) ‘The big one is that picture I started last year for “Lavengro teaching Isopel Berners Armenian, in the dingle”, I had spoilt it & consigned it to the failure drawer, when one day I realised its possibilities so took & washed it & built it up as far as you see it at present. Of course there is a lot to do to it yet.’

The date when the drawing was finally finished is undocumented. A letter from Paul and Margaret Nash to Gordon Bottomley dated 15 June 1913 (Poet and Painter, 71) indicates that it is to be reproduced in the Blue Review (though this never materialised due to the collapse of the magazine). Finally (Poet and Painter, 81) he wrote to Bottomley that it had been sold from his exhibition at the Dorien Leigh Gallery to Sir Michael Sadler (1861–1943) at this time Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University:

The drawings go to his house at Leeds but are to be hung in turns at the University for the edification of students and the general people. Here is an honour. The first of mine he took was Lavengro! Dear old Lavengro that I started two years ago in my Chelsea Lodgings—which afterwards was crossed out and flung aside & washed and scrubbed with a nail brush & redrawn and just lately finished and extra drawn upon. What a past!’ (He also wrote the news to Sir William Rothenstein though did not mention the drawing by name.)

Lavengro and Isopel in the Dingle’ is one of relatively few surviving drawings from the period containing figures (some have had the figures expunged). It was something Nash found extremely difficult to deal with, though at the beginning of 1913 he returned to Bolt Court especially to attack the problem and even talked of going to Paris to study figure drawing. Of the studies which were made for the picture only one has been traced at present (collection the late Philip James). This may be identical with the study listed in Margot Eates,1973 (op. cit.) p.109.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

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