Paul Nash

The Pyramids in the Sea


Not on display

Paul Nash 1889–1946
Ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 336 × 298 mm
frame: 550 × 488 × 15 mm
Purchased 1973

Display caption

This is one of Nash’s first imaginative drawings, produced when he was twenty-three. The mood recalls the spiritual landscapes of William Blake. It has been suggested that for Nash, as for Blake, the pyramid was a symbol of the ascent from the earthbound to the spiritual realm, or from chaos to form. Nash described this work as ‘a queer drawing’ and commented on its ‘uncanny eclipsed moonlight’. This strangeness may anticipate the mood of his later Surreal works.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Paul Nash 1889–1946

T01821 The Pyramids in the Sea 1912

Inscribed ‘Paul Nash’ b.r. and ‘Mercia from Paul’ on mount. Black chalk, pen, blue grey wash,12¾ x 11½(32.5 x 29) Purchased from the Hamet Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.
Coll: Given by the artist to Mercia Oakley (Mrs Gerald Grimsdale) in 1913;sold Mrs J. R. Grimsdale, Sotheby’s 21 November1973 (66), bt. Hamet for Tate Gallery.
Exh: Carfax Gallery, November 1912 (5); Tate Gallery, March–May1948 (74) and English tour; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, July–August 1974 (1).
Lit: John Armstrong, ‘The Present Tendency of Paul Nash’, Apollo, November 1932, pp.231–5; G. Bottomley and P. Nash, Poet and Painter,1955, p.48;Anthony Bertram, Paid Nash, The Portrait of an Artist,1955, pp.64–5, 197; George Wingfield Digby, Meaning and Symbol in three modern artists, 1955, pp.I29, 133.
Repr: Paul Nash, ‘Openings’ in Signature, No.9, July1938, facing p.36; Margot Eates (ed.), Paul Nash,1948, pl.3.

Nash described the genesis of ‘The Pyramids in the Sea’ in a letter to Gordon Bottomley (Poet and Painter,48) from Iver Heath dated 21 August 1912: ‘I have spent nearly three weeks making pictures, which unknown to me, are from the first, doomed; and when my eyes are opened to this tearing them up and beginning anew and muddling for days & tearing up again. Then when I was tired of that game I started a new outdoor drawing—but the devil or someone said “no you don’t”, and at half hour intervals I was interrupted by heavy rain—this lead [sic] eventually to another uptearing. So I began some imaginative landscapes indoors, they went most damnably wrong; my brain seemed a hollow tunnel thro’ which stupid meaningless trains of thought rushed, or just aimless winds of nothing at all. At last I nearly wept; indeed I did cry inside and made an attempt at weeping but returned soon to my board and suddenly did a queer drawing of pyramids crashing about in the sea in uncanny eclipsed moon light; –this promises thank God.’

One of the reasons for Nash’s somewhat harassed state is revealed a sentence or two later: ‘What haunts me is the thought of the “show” and if I should not get enough drawings done in time!’ Sir William Richmond had begun to talk of an exhibition in May although nothing seems to have been fixed until October. ‘The Pyramids in the Sea’ was included in this first show of Nash’s at the Carfax Gallery, but was given shortly afterwards to his friend Mercia Oakley, later Mrs Gerald Grimsdale (See T01782). According to a letter from Mrs Grimsdale to Anthony Bertram 26 April 1951, (quoted in a letter to the compiler by Mrs Bertram 23 May 1974), it was a twenty-first birthday present. The drawing remained in the Grimsdale family until 1973.

What the drawing meant imaginatively to Nash remains obscure. Mrs Gerald Grimsdale wrote to Anthony Bertram (25 May1951 again quoted to the compiler by Mrs Bertram loc. cit.) that it was done ‘from a conversation between us’ but unfortunately she did not elaborate. Anthony Bertram points out (Paul Nash, the Portrait of an Artist, 1955, pp.64–5) that the embryo of this idea is contained in the book plate of early 1910 (repr. Outline facing p.65). Here a single pyramid is reflected in calm water, but it is also a night scene, with a sickle moon atop a head in the sky. Furthermore it is an example of the use of the three elements of water, earth and air which concerned Nash particularly at this time—see Outline, pp.80–1. Bertram goes on to show that this is the first of Nash’s pictures which show an ‘interpenetration of images’. In this case he says ‘the image of durable order stands firm it is not “crashing about” at all in the perpetual motion of the sea. It expresses the meeting of Kant’s concept of the Mathematical and Dynamic Sublime. The desert beyond moves in parallel wave motion which breaks down the isolation of phenomena another recurrent theme and prepares the way for “Stone Sea”, “Wood Sea” and many similar pictures’. Bertram also draws attention to the group of trees on a domed hill as a further expression of typical Nash imagery (in its suggestion of Wittenham Clumps) and to the ‘dramatic encounter between the work of man and the sea’ which looks forward to many Dymchurch and Swanage pictures.

Nash said he did not think of the sea as blue and beguiling until he went to Swanage. In the Dymchurch works (and some of the Swanage ones) the sea seems to battle constantly with the land, to be dark, cold and inherently cruel. In Outline he described his earliest encounters with it and how he was very nearly drowned as a child. Andrew Causey in his forthcoming book on Nash points out that his image of the sea is close to that of the Romantics and the early Victorian poets. In Blake and Coleridge the sea was associated with incarnation and generation, later also with woman and death. In early Yeats and Fiona McLeod images of the sea often contained an element of active malevolence. A reference to early visits to Swanage in Outline (p.121) constitutes an early instance of interpenetration of sea and land: out shooting in Berkshire he suddenly has a vision of Ballard Head. On the next page we find his reference to Wittenham Clumps as ‘The Pyramids of my small world’.

The recurrent interest in triangles and pyramids in Nash’s work has many ramifications. Even at this time pyramids underlay many of Nash’s compositions e.g. ‘Lavengro and Isopel in the Dingle’, as Nash himself described. A later notable instance is a lost drawing of a pyramid of figures which Wyndham Lewis particularly wanted to buy from Nash in 1919 and about which they had an acrimonious correspondance. Nash tended to gravitate towards actual pyramidal forms: Silbury Hill, the tall fruit picker’s ladder, the pile of logs or oil drums, a derrick, a set square, a topiary pyramid etc.

Pyramids recur again in the sea. Andrew Causey has drawn attention to a pencil drawing done at Dymchurch (Collection the Paul Nash Trust) where a pyramid emerges from a starlit sea while on the beach stand two related pyramidal forms— the oil drums and the tall ladder. The Genesis illustrations of 1924 (Dymchurch period) show the pyramids of the dry land emerging progressively from and out of the formlessness of the sea. The pyramid form here is also related to geometry and to the forces of darkness and light. The pyramid returns in the Urne Burial/ and The Garden of Cyrus series (1931–2) illustrating Browne’s proposition in the latter book about the way ideas enter the intellect, and in the context of his consideration of light and shadow: ‘The greatest mystery of religion is adumbration...Thesunne itself is but the dark simulachrum, and light but the shadow of God.’ (See Causey’s unpublished monograph on Nash).

The influence here of Blake is probably important (See Outline, pp.79–80). John Nash told the compiler (letter of 28 March 1974) that he thought Blake was likely to be at the bottom of it. Andrew Causey wrote (letter 9 February 1974) ‘I think there is possibly a reference in “The Pyramids in the Sea” to Blake, in particular to the figure of the man in front of two pyramids in one of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” designs. There is a great deal of Blake in Nash at this time. I have thought a good deal about pyramids; these are obviously symbolic ones and therefore seem to relate easily to Blake especially if one views them as images of control and differentiation emerging from chaos or non-form. I considered a parallel from Watts ‘Chaos’ in view of Nash’s obvious interest in Watts at that time (the phrase “the dweller in the innermost” in a letter to Bottomley), but though I think Nash’s intention may have been similar to Watts I am not sure that the visual parallel is close enough to be interesting. Thirdly I considered the documentary possibilities of the pyramids as in Holman Hunt’s work or perhaps Edward Lear in view of Nash’s connection with Lear. The palm tree in “Pyramids in the Sea”, which formally seems rather an irrelevance, I feel maintains a link with the documentary tradition... But of these suggestions I think only the Blake connection may genuinely be important.’ (It is perhaps worth noting that Blake’s poem quoted by Nash as of crucial importance at that time in Outline, p.79 (‘To my friend Butts’) is a vision of the seashore.)

The compiler would like particularly to acknowledge the generous assistance of Dr Andrew Causey in preparing the entries on T01771, T01782 and T01821.

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

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