Barbican Art Gallery (London, UK): Modern Couples
- Paul Nash 1889–1946
- Graphite, watercolour and photographs, black and white, on paper
- Support: 400 x 581 mm
frame: 535 x 634 x 22 mm
- Purchased 1973
Paul Nash 1889–1946
T01771 Swanage circa 1936
Inscribed ‘PN’ (monogram) b.r. towards centre and ‘SWANAGE’ b.r. Also 1.and r. of image respectively in outer margins ‘Please make negative of this/& supply 10 x 8 enlargement’ and ‘X/take care/of/original/& return’.
Pencil, watercolour, collaged photographs, 13¼ x 16½ (33.5 x 42) on paper 15¾x22¿(40x58).
Purchased from Anthony d’Offay (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.
Coll: The artist; Margaret Nash; The Paul Nash Trust; Hamet Gallery 1973; Anthony d’Offay.
Exh:Hamet Gallery, May 1973 (46, repr.).
Swanage in Dorset was one of the key ‘places’ in Nash’s life. His association with it, apart from holidays in youth and a return visit in 1937, centred chiefly on the period autumn 1934 to early spring 1936 when he lived mainly at or in the neighbourhood of Swanage. During this time he worked on the Dorset volume of the Shell Guide, commissioned early in 1935, for which he travelled widely throughout the county. As well as a great deal of photography Nash also made numerous paintings, drawings and watercolours connected with Swanage and its environs and continued to refer to the area in his work even after he had ceased to live there. During the last ten days of his life he revisited Corfe, Swanage, Worth Matravers and Kimmeridge Bay, and shortly before he died at Boscombe wrote (letter to Richard Smart quoted Anthony BertramPaul Nash, 1955, p.306) ‘Boscombe is next to Bournemouth, Bournemouth is next to Poole and Poole is next to Swanage. And there I am in my kingdom.’
Nash’s Swanage period coincided with his closest preoccupation with Surrealism and especially with the objet trouve. Most of the photographic images in the present work are found objects connected with that time. However as well as being extraordinary things of Surrealist appearance they also contain multiple references to actual people, places and events. They refer to the artist’s personal and artistic life as much as to the Surrealism of Swanage.
It seems that Nash noted the Surrealist properties of Swanage from the first. He wrote to Lance Sieveking in November 1934 ‘it’s just a Surrealist dream’ and he elaborated this theme in ‘Swanage or Seaside Surrealism’ (Architectural Review, April 1936, pp. 151–4). The Surrealist quality Nash found particularly fascinating about it was that ‘of a dream image where things are so often incongruous and slightly frightening in their relation to time or place’ (op. cit.).Swanage was full of strange things out of context—swans on the sea, lampposts from St George’s, Hanover Square, and out of time: fossils thousands of years old, extraordinary flora and fauna living and dead, past and present, mysterious geological structures and historical references from widely different periods. Such a coming together is encapsulated in the poem by Thomas Hardy which prefaces the Shell Guide. Nash added his own references in the shape of found objects.
Ruth Clark told the compiler (letter of 4 March 1974) that long before this period she had been in the habit of keeping shells, pebbles and postcards which would be likely to interest the artist. According to a note found among Nash’s papers after his death he had come to realise the power of stones at Avebury in 1933, before he became concerned with what he called ‘object-personages’. The first of these seems to have been ‘Marsh Personage’ (repr. here) discovered on Romney Marsh in 1934. Nash published several important essays during the later 1930s, defending and expounding his interest in the found object. (‘The Object’, Architectural Review, November 1936; ‘The Life of the Inanimate Object’, Country Life, May 1937, pp.496–7). In the latter he explained that fortuitous resemblances are ‘only interesting in a quaint way and are probably quite rightly mostly attributed to the Devil.
‘To show personal distinction an object must show in its lineaments a veritable personality of its own. It may be a stone which looks like a bloodhound… but it must not have only and amusingly a canine look; it must be a thing which is an embodiment and most surely possesses power.’
‘My own use of the object pictorially and in making groups of interpenetrating natural objects is inevitably imaginative but I do not allow the prompting of the unconscious to lead me beyond a point of defensive control, in support of certain aesthetic convictions.’
‘One thing is clear, however, in my experience, the more the object is studied from the point of view of its animation the more incalculable it becomes in its variations; the more subtle also becomes the problem of assembling and associating different objects in order to create that true irrational poise which is the solution of the personal equation.’
Unfortunately almost none of these objects survives except as depicted in Nash’s work, though he apparently continued to keep and collect objects until his death.
Photography and collage were avant-garde techniques also much used by the Surrealists. Nash’s interest in collage slightly predates his interest in photography. According to Ruth Clark (letter 14 March 1974), the earliest collages date from 1929 and were conceived rather in the light of parlour games (sometimes played with Edward Burra– e.g. ‘Rough on Rats’, collection Anstice Shaw). However by the time he went to Swanage Nash was apparently taking the medium very seriously. Other works using photography (montage and collage) exist which relate to Swanage, but none so complex in subject as this.
It is not possible to establish a precise date for this present work. It does not seem to have been exhibited during Nash’s lifetime and none of those who know him well during the thirties can remember seeing it then (Ruth Clark, Eileen Agar, Clare Neilson, John Nash, Roland Penrose). Although it is constructed almost entirely from photographs relating to the Swanage period 1934–6, it was Nash’s practice to use and re-use such images. Thus that three of them were reproduced collaged together in a different way in November 1936 need not mean that the work had not yet been made. The earliest date would seem to be September 1935 when according to Anthony Bertram the swan on the sea was photographed.
From left to right the elements of the composition are as follows.
The artist took numerous photographs of stony beaches during his Swanage period. There are several among the photographs in the Tate Gallery Archive donated by the Paul Nash Trust, though none is identical with this photograph. Two similar sites arc reproduced in Andrew Causey, Paul Nash’s Photographs, 1973 (pl.52 ‘Pebbles’ and pl.51 ‘Stones and Seaweed’, which was first used for the photomontage on the back cover of the Dorset Shell Guide). Pebbles and shingle are an important feature of the area, as in the great Chesil Bank which runs from Portland to Bridport. The Shell Guide recounts that all kinds of exotic sea creatures are captured there ‘the blue shark, the electric ray, sea devils, sun fishes, corals, exotic flotsam from across the Atlantic’.
2. Found Object, Mineral Kingdom, Vitreous Substance
This was the description given by Paul Nash to the dark fossil-like object on the left of this work reproduced in connection with his article ‘The Object’ (loc.cit.). It forms part of a collage of three photographs all used, in the present composition (See ‘Marsh Personage’ and ‘Lon-gom-pa’), but is not referred to in the text. There are also photographs of the object in the Tate Archives. One, identical to this but postage stamp size, has been cut out and is mounted on a file card. Another taken from a marginally different angle shows the object placed at the end of a flat stone balustrade, where one would expect to see a stone ball, pineapple or urn. (The effect is much more sinister). This is the balustrade to a flight of steps leading to a pebble-dash fronted villa on which is a board with the word ‘Seabreeze’ clearly visible forming some clear but ambiguous connection with the object below. The context suggests that the object was some 10 or 12 in. high. The house has been identified from notebook pages of Nash’s in the collection of Ruth Clark as the guest-house at Worth Matravers where the artist stayed for a short time during the spring of 1936 or 1937 (letters to the compiler 20 May and 19 October 1974).
Eileen Agar in a letter to the compiler (4 March 1974) identified the object as ‘a bit of Kimmeridge Rock’. Nash took many photographs of Kimmeridge Bay (See 3 ‘Shale from “Only Egg”‘). In the Shell Guide he described the black bituminous Kimmeridge clay, the low black cliffs at St Aldhelm’s Head made up of alternate layers of soft shale and hard shaley stone and the vast fauna of clay fossils at Upper Kimmeridge.
3. Piece of shale from ‘Only Egg’
The thin, flat, upright, semi-circular piece of stone forming the background to several of the objects in ‘Swanage’ is a piece of shale about 7 in. high probably from Kimmeridge Bay, which is now part of one of Nash’s few surviving works involving actual objects: ‘Only Egg’c.1937, collection Clare Neilson. It was also used in the group of ‘poised objects’ recorded in a photograph entitled ‘Still-life on a Doormat’ (Causey op. cit. pl.32, dated there 1934). Its compositional function is similar in all three cases. In ‘Only Egg’ (repr. P. Morton Shand: ‘Object and Landscape’, Country Life, 3 June 1939, p.593) two stones (one reminiscent of a bird and the other of an egg) are placed in front of this piece of shale. There is a photocollage background including a view of Kimmeridge Bay comparable to Causey op. cit. pi.48. The objects are enclosed in a box approximately 6 x 12 x 6 in. Morton Shand called it a ‘Wall Ornament’. It was exhibited in the Surrealist Objects and Poems exhibition September 1937, in the Cambridge University Art Society’s exhibition of Surrealism at the Gordon Fraser Gallery in November 1937 and subsequently at Nash’s Leicester Galleries exhibition of 1938. It was given to Mrs Neilson as a Christmas present in 1940.
4. ‘Lon-gom-pa’— Found Object, Vegetable Kingdom, Furze Wood
Nash gave the latter description to the flying object on the left of this collage, which was also reproduced in his 1936 essay on ‘The Object’ (loc.cit.). In the text he wrote: ‘It is not that I resent my unconscious being credited with any or all of the vivid personalities in this illustration, one of which, the most Freudian, was found by a lady on Egdon Heath’.
In the Shell Guide (p.11) Nash described the magic of the Great Heath, ‘a wilderness of heath, furze, briars and moss’ almost twenty miles long which lies between Dorchester, Cranborne and Studland. The touring visitor, he says, may get some inkling of the enchantment of the place ‘But it is not given to strangers to know the Heath, any more than foreigners can understand the Romney Marsh.’
The title ‘Lon-gom-pa’ which Nash gave to this piece of furzewood is the name of certain specialist lamas of Tibet. Knowledge of their extraordinary accomplishments in covering huge distances in a trance-like state was apparently widely known in the thirties through the book Mystiques et Magiciens du Thibet, 1929 (first English edition 1931, Penguin paperback 1936) by Mme David-Neel. It is clear from reviews of exhibitions in which the object was shown that the implications of its title were generally understood (e.g. Daily Telegraph, 26 November 1937).
The Freudian implications of the object are clarified by Nash’s essay ‘Aerial Flowers’ (Counterpoint Magazine, 1944, reprinted Outline 1949, pp.258–65), in which he discusses his life-long preoccupation with flying and with the sky from earliest childhood dreams to the aerial warfare of World War II. It is in the context of the former that he mentions the ‘Lon-gom-pa’. The kind of flying he dreamt of did not ‘seek the altitudes. Its “ceiling” is not much higher than the highest tree tops. There is a kind of “over the hills and far away” feeling in it. It is in fact about the compass of the Lung-gom-pas, specialist Lamas who are known to be able to travel by a method of great leaps and glidings over incredible distances. At the same time the levitation I was capable of in my dreams was rather more than the fabulous Puss-in-Boots performance of three league jumps across the country. My course was not confined constantly to the parabola. I could soar aloft; I feel no doubt I could climb in the upper air... Even so my powers of flying were exercised with the majority of birds.’ (An interesting early reference to the seven league boot approach is recorded in a drawing in a letter to Gordon Bottomley of 14 July 1914 which shows Paul and Margaret Nash walking in the Lake District.)
Other aspects of Nash’s preoccupation with flying which are relevant here, are its connections in his mind with night and with death. It is thus significant that this piece of wood was photographed in the window of the moth-catching outhouse which Archibald Russell had had built onto his house ‘Scarbank’, on Ballard Down. A light burned all night in this specially constructed window to entice and capture many of Dorset’s exceptionally large population of moths. Russell, then Lancaster Herald, was also an eminent entomologist; he contributed a section on the fauna of Dorset to the Shell Guide.
Eileen Agar identified the moth-house for the compiler (conversation of 3 July 1974) from a photograph in the Tate Archives. Other views showing the ‘Lon-gom-pa’ in situ are reproduced in Causey (op, cit. pl.38) and with Nash’s essay ‘The Object’ (loc.cit.). If Nash’s love for moths and night creatures did not come from his friendship with Russell, it must certainly have been an immediate bond. The quotation from Hardy which prefaces the Shell Guide is probably also relevant in this respect.
The notion of capture is again connected with the ‘Lon-gom-pa’ in that it was exhibited in the London Gallery’s Surrealist Objects and Poems exhibition (September 1937; 49)and the Cambridge University exhibition the same year in a rectangular glass case. (A frequent Surrealist practice).The graceful speeding figure (repr. The Sketch, December 1937, P.416) is shown trapped, not unlike a moth or stuffed bird, but also with overtones of scientific wonders in bottles. This accords with the sense that all the objects in this work have of coming from other ages, of being ossified, fossilised, of strange function or purpose.
An installation photograph of the Cambridge exhibition (collection Sir Roland Penrose), shows the ‘Lon-gom-pa’ next to Picasso’s portrait of Lee Miller and thus suggests that the ‘Lon-gom-pa’ was about 18 in. high.
The bleached bony object to the right of the ‘Lon-gom-pa’ is a crucifix fish. Eileen Agar, who herself spent the summer of 1935 at Swanage (see also Nos.8 and 9) told the compiler in conversation (4 July 1974) that she met the Nash’s through Ashley Havinden who was also staying at Swanage, and they subsequently became close friends. In a letter of 6 March 1974 she wrote ‘I also had a crucifix fish (the white object in the centre), and we used to compare notes as to who had the best example.’
6. Marsh Personage
This was apparently Nash’s first objet trouvé and was perhaps the best known. Although it did not originate in Swanage Nash probably had photographs of it there and may have taken it with him. In his essay ‘The Object’ (loc.cit.) he described it as ‘Found Object, Vegetable Kingdom, Driftwood’ and it is reproduced there already collaged together with the photographs of the ‘Lon-gom-pa’ and the piece of Kimmeridge Rock.
Its discovery is documented in Nash’s first letter to Clare Neilson, dated 6 August 1934 from Cullens at Wittersham (near Small Hythe) ‘Yesterday I found a superb piece of wood sculpture (salvaged from a stream) like a very fine Henry Moore. It is now dominating the sitting room waiting to be photographed (quoted Bertram, 1955, p.220). In ‘The Object’ Nash stated that it was found on Romney Marsh; he was more explicit about it to P. Morton Shand who wrote in ‘Object and Landscape’(loc.cit.):‘Confronted by a large piece of driftwood on the bank of the River Rother, near Rye, Nash says he was instantly aware of being in the presence of what he could only describe as a “personage”, and Coleridge would have called a “personeity”. That split and eroded tree-trunk was more than other than it seemed, and emanated some indeterminable and disquieting magic. Being shapeless, it yet occultly evinced form; though dead, it was patently quick with a mysterious life of its own.’
Nash described the discovery again in a letter to Dudley Tooth (November 1943, quoted George Wingfield Digby, Meaning and Symbolism in three modern artists, 1955, pp.110–11). He also adds here a little more about the ‘wing appendage’. This he says ‘was lying close by and was attached by me to complete the individual. He concluded ‘I have never made use of it pictorially in all these years [presumably, but not necessarily, he is referring to painting only] it is too complete in itself. But it is the origins of the preoccupation which produced several pictures wherein such natural objects played the principal part’.
The title ‘Marsh Personage’ does not seem to have been in use before the late thirties. The first published reference appears to be in P. Morton Shand (op. cit.). In the catalogue of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries the entry reads ‘251 Found object interpreted vegetable kingdom’. (Nash explained in ‘The Object’ (loc.cit.) that it is interpreted by virtue of the simple device of placing it on a pedestal.) In a letter to Clare Neilson written between October and December 1934 he refers to ‘the fetish’ and thanks her for a fine photograph of it. This could refer to the pencil drawing of the piece entitled ‘Wood Fetish’ or to the object itself. Mrs Neilson told the compiler in conversation that ‘Marsh Personage’ was often referred to as ‘the monster’ (29 October 1974). She could not remember when it was given its definitive title. The ‘Wood Fetish’ drawing (now collection Sir Michael Culme-Seymour) also previously belonged to Mrs Neilson who purchased it from Nash’s 1935 Redfern exhibition. She told the compiler in conversation (20 March 1974) that Nash in fact gave her the ‘Marsh Personage’ itself at this time, but that it was frequently returned to him for exhibitions and to show to people.
According to installation photographs of the International Surrealist Exhibition (Collection Sir Roland Penrose) the object was exhibited between works by Picasso (‘Woman in a Chemise’, 1913) and Picabia, with others by Ernst, Arp, Dali, Moore and Miró nearby. A 1937 photograph of the hall and staircase of Nash’s house in Eldon Grove, Hampstead (Outline facing p.220) shows the ‘Marsh Personage’ standing on top of a cupboard. According to Clare Neilson, after he moved to Banbury Road in Oxford, Nash took it from the Neilson’s house, ‘Madams’ in Gloucestershire, and among others Ruth Clark and Anstice Shaw recall its presence on the mantelpiece of Nash’s studio. Philip James (Margot Eates ed. Paul Nash, 1948 p.40) described it there surrounded by smaller objects. Anthony Bertram (1955, p.220) stated that the object still survived at the time his biography was published, but Anstice Shaw told the compiler in conversation that it was probably destroyed when Margaret Nash moved from Banbury Road.
Nash took numerous photographs of the object of which several are in the Tate Archive. It is shown lying on grass (possibly as it was found—Causey op. cit. pl.36, Margot Eates, Paul Nash, 1973, facing p.56), upright against foliage, on a tripod-like stand, silhouetted against the sky. He also occasionally used it, or part of it, to form other works. Propped against rough, rustic, wooden weather boarding and without the curved bit it became ‘Dracula’ (Paul Nash’s Camera, 1951 (18), Fertile Image, 1951, pl.27, Causey, op. cit. pl.36) and he used the billowing sail part alone as part of a group of poised objects of 1934–6 (Causey, op. cit. pi.31).
According to Clare Neilson (and confirmed by installation photographs) the object was about 2 ft. 6 in. high. She told the compiler that after Nash gave it to her she had a stand made for it from an oak block.
This tall, totem-like piece of wood, apparently rising out of Studland Bay behind Ballard Head does not appear to feature in any of Nash’s works, though the photograph from which it was taken can be identified in the Tate Archive, where there are further photographs showing it by the corner of a house. The photograph adopted has a note on the back ‘enlarge 10 x 8’ and the image has been used almost complete. It is perhaps reminiscent of the trees in ‘Stone Forest’ 1937—fossil trees on the foreshore at Lulworth.
8. Sea Monster (anchor chain)
This object belonged to Eileen Agar. She wrote to the compiler (24 February 1974) ‘I found it buried deep in the sand and shingle of Lulworth Cove in Dorset, one summer in 1935, with only the beak projecting to warn me of buried treasure— and I carried it home in triumph to the cottage I had in Swanage for the summer— actually it was part of an old anchor chain which I suppose had lain at the bottom of the sea for ages and collected an accretion of shells & stones to give it body and metamorphose it into a remarkable object. It was about 2 ft. long—Paul saw it at Clarence Cottage & was immediately intrigued and fascinated by it and it is there that he photographed it. He was staying at this time with Archibald Russell (then Lancaster Herald) who had a house on the cliffs at Swanage.
‘I kept this object in the studio in London until 1959, altho’ it had been battered by the Blitz, (it was on the balcony & lost a lot of stones) then when we moved to the above address, as I had no room for it, I regretfully left it behind.’
Eileen Agar also added that this object was never exhibited. She herself always referred to it as the ‘Sea-Snake’ (letter to the compiler 6 March 1974), but she does not remember whether Nash knew it as such, though she pointed out that he was much concerned with snakes. In a postcard belonging to Eileen Agar datable to 1936, 8 or 9 (the postmark is unclear) Nash enjoined her ‘don’t forget my sea-shore monster’. Eileen Agar also still owns a watercolour of the ‘Sea-Snake’ which she made in 1936.
Nash used the same photograph of the object collaged to the photograph of the swan on the sea as the tailpiece for his essay ‘Swanage or Seaside Surrealism’(loc. cit.). The connections and contrasts between the two images of scale, time, element and substance are immediately striking. He used it again shortly afterwards in the context of interior decoration in ‘Surrealism and Decoration’, Decoration, June 1936.
9. The Swan in Swanage Bay
Nash took several photographs of a swan which appeared in Swanage Bay in about September 1935. The event is documented in a letter to Anthony Bertram (quoted Causey op. cit. p. 121): ‘A swan appeared in the bay last Monday and got badly buffeted by some rude waves.’ Causey (pl.46) shows the swan being buffeted, as does a postcard sent to Eileen Agar postmarked 6 July 1936 and the negative of this photograph is in the Tate Archive. But in the photograph used in the collage (and in ‘Swanage or Seaside Surrealism’) the swan is much further out to sea in calmer water. Here the photograph has been considerably cropped to the left and breaking waves in the foreground have been eliminated.
The surreality of the swan on the sea is described in the text of ‘Swanage or Seaside Surrealism’. Here Nash’s make-believe traveller confronted by de Chirico-esque pillars in the grounds of an imposing hotel ‘looks uneasily down at the shore expecting to see it invaded by stampeding horses. Instead a single swan descends upon the choppy waters of the bay riding uncomfortably against the incoming tide.’ The preoccupation appears elsewhere at this time—in Nash’s watercolour ‘Comment on Leda’ (collection Eileen Agar) and the photograph which inspired it which shows a swan-like objet trouve (in fact the inverted leg of an unidentifiable piece of furniture) which Nash photographed apparently on the seafront at Swanage at high tide (photograph in the Tate Archive).
The above-mentioned postcard from Nash to Eileen Agar (in her possession) posted in London only two days after the opening of the International Surrealist Exhibition reads ‘I have been going over my mementoes and came upon this—a quaint bit of reality to set against my surreality of the swan. I should have remembered when I made that “comment”, whom the disguise hid. The Gods cannot be jested with, I suppose.’ Eileen Agar also painted a work entitled ‘Leda’ in 1935 (exhibited in the International Surrealist Exhibition the next year).
Swans on the sea though generally unusual elsewhere are not so unlikely at Swanage in view of the Swannery on the Chesil Bank at nearby Abbotsbury. In the Shell Guide (p.22) Nash referred to it as ‘the shores of a Swannery of a thousand swans’.
10. Ballard Head
The distant line of down and cliff on the right of the collage is that of Ballard Down and Ballard Head which divides Swanage Bay from Studland Bay. Nash stayed in two houses on the slopes of Ballard Down—Hilda Felce’s and Archibald Russell’s—and considered building there himself. The white shape just visible at the end of the cliffs is Old Harry Rock which marks the boundary of the Dorset and Hampshire shores. These cliffs and Old Harry appear in other works (and in photographs) for example ‘Empty Room’, 1935 (not 1937 according to Andrew Causey). ‘Event on the Downs’, 1934, shows the bluff of Ballard Head from inland. (Nash’s earliest expressed involvement with Ballard Head however dates from c. 1912 see Outline p.121).
It is impossible to say whether the heavenly body low in the sky above Ballard Head represents rising sun or setting moon, in either case the artist takes advantage of the black and white photographs to suggest a kind of half light. It is perhaps significant in this respect that Nash several times refers to Dorset at twilight and at night, in the Shell Guide and in ‘Swanage or Seaside Surrealism’.
Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.
- emotions, concepts and ideas(15,767)