Paul Nash

Mansions of the Dead


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Not on display

Paul Nash 1889–1946
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 578 × 394 mm
Purchased 1981

Display caption

This image epitomizes the way Nash’s work links Surrealism to an earlier British romanticism. It was made as an illustration to Thomas Browne's seventeenth-century essay Urne Buriall (on display close by). Another version of this drawing was also included in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. Browne’s mystical treatise meditates on death and immortality. Nash’s drawing is based on a loose interpretation of the text. It shows, in Nash’s words, 'aerial habitations where the soul like a bird or some such aerial creature roamed at will'

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘Paul Nash’ bottom right
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 22 3/4 × 15 1/2 (57.7 × 39.5)
Purchased from the Edward James
Foundation through James Kirkman Ltd (Grant-in-Aid) 1981
Prov: Edward James; Edward James Foundation
Exh: Watercolours by Paul Nash, Leicester Galleries, November 1932 (40); XXI Venice Biennale, June–September 1938 (British pavilion 20); Oils, Watercolours and Exhibits by Paul Nash, Gordon Fraser Gallery, Cambridge, July 1939 (8); Paul Nash: Paintings and Watercolours, Tate Gallery, November–December 1975 and Arts Council tour to City Art Gallery, Plymouth, The Minories, Colchester, Cartwright Memorial Hall, Bradford, and City Art Gallery, Manchester, January–May 1976 (140)
Lit: John Armstrong, ‘Watercolours by Paul Nash at the Leicester Galleries’, Weekend Review, 5 November 1932; Anthony Bertram, ‘The Art of Paul Nash’, Listener, VIII, 1932, pp.662–3; Herbert Read, Paul Nash, Harmondsworth 1944, p.11; Paul Nash, Aerial Flowers, Oxford 1947; Margot Eates (ed.), Paul Nash: Paintings, Drawings and Illustrations, 1948, pp.38–9; Anthony Bertram, Paul Nash: The Portrait of an Artist, 1955, pp.27, 183, 195–7, 211, 214, 241, 280, 323; George Wingfield Digby, Meaning and Symbol in Three Modern Artists, 1955, p.138; Margot Eates, Paul Nash: The Master of the Image 1889–1946, 1973, p.50; Andrew Causey, Paul Nash, Oxford 1980, no.753, pp.221–5, 422–3
Repr: Apollo, XVI, 1932, p.235; The Tate Gallery: Illustrated Biennial Report 1980–82, 1983, p.41 in colour

Paul Nash spent much of 1931 and the beginning of 1932 making drawings for an illustrated edition of Urne Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus by the seventeenth-century writer, antiquarian and physician Sir Thomas Browne; the themes of these two books were death, immortality, the fatuity of over-concern with elaborate burial customs, and the geometric order of nature. The book, of which the design of the cover as well as the thirty illustrations were by Nash, was printed by the Curwen Press and published by Cassell's in 1932 in an edition of 215 of which only 85 were bound.

The thirty illustrations were made from monochrome collotypes hand-coloured by the staff of the Curwen Press using watercolour applied over stencils. Nash made conté chalk drawings for the Curwen staff to cut the stencils, and a set of the Curwen collotypes which he coloured in watercolour to guide the Curwen artists. He also made a set of thirty small watercolours that he could use himself to check the work of the Curwen artists. In addition Nash made larger watercolour versions of six of the thirty illustrations and versions in oils of three of them. ‘Mansions of the Dead’ is a larger version of the illustration ‘The Soul Visiting the Mansions of the Dead’. The smaller watercolour, 8 1/2 × 6 1/2 inches, belongs to the British Council. Nash also produced a version in oils 30 × 20 inches in 1933 which he entitled ‘Aerial Flowers’.

'The Soul Visiting the Mansions of the Dead’ relates to Browne's musings on the fate of the soul after death when he wrote ‘Before Plato could speak the soul had wings in Homer, which fell not out, but flew out of the body into the mansions of the dead.’ In the illustration birds, each in an egg-shaped bubble or envelope, are flying above the clouds and one is perching on a trellislike structure. Geometrical structures were a common feature in Nash's imagery throughout much of his painting career.

Browne did not in fact write of the soul visiting the mansions of the dead; instead his words suggest that the soul takes up its abode there. In 1944 Nash wrote (Aerial Flowers, p.5) of this illustration: ‘It was my first attempt to express the sensation of being in space, in a realistic sense, and of conveying in a heightened degree the element of interpenetration’. For the last fifteen or so years of his life Nash had associated death with liberation and both of them with the sky. On 4 June 1941 in a letter to Hartley Ramsden (quoted by Causey, op.cit., p.224) he wrote: ‘It was only the other day that it occurred to me that Sir Thomas Browne must have been thinking of tombs under the earth when he wrote of “The Soul Visiting the Mansions of the Dead”. To me that suggested only aerial habitations where the soul like a bird or some such aerial creature roamed at will perching now and then on those convenient structures in the clouds or in the pure upper air’.

The Tate watercolour has always been known as ‘The Mansions of the Dead’. The British Council watercolour was first exhibited in 1931 under the title ‘The Soul in the Mansions of the Dead’; it is inscribed with the title ‘The Soul Visiting the Mansions of the Dead’ and is also sometimes called ‘The Mansions of the Dead’.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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