A Quiet Sense of Order
THE English artist John Nash (1893-1977) told the writer Ronald Blythe, ''I ... like order in the landscape, and if I look long enough I usually find it.'' Then he added: ``...this is not to say that I am emotionally cold towards what I am seeing and painting. Far from it.
A hint of the reason for his feeling that he had to ``look long'' to discover order in the landscapes he painted can be found in a detailed and elaborate description Nash wrote in 1937 of beech woods in the county of Buckinghamshire, a description of what might almost be called the disorder of nature. At one point in this passage, spring takes over from winter: ``In Spring there is more movement, the trees wear sweeping dresses, trail flounces, carry parasols of shrill acid green. The play of light on these complicated lacy masses of foliage is bewildering.''
He was writing for the general reader, not for artists (in the Shell Guide to Buckinghamshire, which he also illustrated), but the word ``bewildering'' suggests his acute awareness as a painter of the overwhelming appearance of multi-faceted nature, particularly in sunlight. To convert all this abundance and excessive display of countless little fragments into a single, comprehensible picture is at least a challenge to simplification and distillation. And John Nash seems to have constitutionally been a simplifier, an imposer of order.
But the kind of landscape he painted had already been imposed upon in many ways by man; really wild, uncultivated nature is actually rather scarce in England, and Nash's fields and trees often have the forms and arrangements they do as the result of centuries of plowing, seeding, and harvesting, planting and coppicing, felling and replanting. When he painted trees in full-blown spring or summer foliage, he looked for large masses, billows, clumps, and shapes, and reduced the bewilderment of a trillion leaves into bolder generalizations. He was also clearly fascinated by the play of light over the landscape, though he never allowed it to disrupt his sense of an ordered land and an ordered picture-making.
In ``John Nash: The Delighted Eye,'' a book recently published to mark the centenary of Nash's birth, the author, Allen Freer, has this to say: ``Related to [his] sharpness and sensitivity of observation is the quality of concentration he manages to get into his finest landscapes. He immediately seizes on the pattern that will bring the various elements of a landscape into a coherent whole - he would, if pressed, refer to these as the abstract qualities of a landscape - by which he meant vital relationship of specific natural forms. It did not do to pursue this line of thought too remorselessly with him. It was an intuitive gift he knew he had and one which he knew would not be helped by art-theoretical probing.''
Nash was immediately regarded by many as a ``modern'' artist when his earliest work was exhibited. He was appreciated for a naive directness that partly resulted from his lack of art-school training, and partly from a kind of instinctive wit that obviously abhorred overstatement. But Nash really worked for the most part in a much older tradition. Those writing about him tend to emphasize his comparative lack of interest in the work of other artists, either contemporary or old. He did not think of art as rethinking other art, or responding to it. To him, it was a tool to express his love of the English landscape. He rarely referred to other artists - but then he also rarely talked art. With artist friends he was much more likely to talk about plants, a lifelong passion, also a frequent subject of his work.
The artist with whom he shared most was his older brother Paul Nash, who was the first to encourage him. Paul was a fully trained artist, but he did not believe that his brother's peculiar talent would necessarily benefit from art schooling. Although John, at least in early years, was afforded as much attention and praise as his brother, it seems that today his reputation is considerably overshadowed. In surveys of British art, for instance, like the one written by Frances Spalding in 1986, Paul is discussed at length, but John is not even mentioned. He has apparently been relegated to minor-artist status.
THE tradition he worked in goes back at least to the early 19th-century watercolorists who were particularly active in East Anglia (East England, where Nash spent half of his life) - artists like Cotman, Girtin, and De Wint. Cotman's economical style, with a clean balance of shapes, clearly delineated and separated from other shapes by calm, lucid washes and scrupulous changes of tone, surely had a powerful effect on John Nash's nascent style when he saw Cotman's work at the Victoria and Albert Museum as a young man. And Cotman's style in its turn was a sophisticated development of much that was typical in 18th-century English watercolor painting.
The basis of Nash's work was watercolor throughout his career. He quickly learned to paint in oil, and did so with a firm and sensitive rather than an opulent or lush feeling for the medium, but his immediate responses to the countryside were always drawings or watercolors on paper.
Even in these first depictions of a landscape, however, his quiet sense of order dominated and his spontaneity was never a free play of brush and color uncontrolled by linearity. He could be lyrical, and his line traced fluent undulations and rhythms of tree branch, hill, or cloud, but these were movements he found in the landscape rather than in some love affair with his own manner or style.
``The Cornfield'' of 1918 - in oil - is probably John Nash's best known and most reproduced painting. It is an archetypal image, redolent with the warm intensity of evening, the satisfaction of harvest, and a deep sense of the comforting way in which nature can convince us so easily and persistently that ``all's right with the world.'' What is so interesting, however, about this work is that it is, in a way, a very direct result of the horrors and trauma of the artist's experiences during World War I.
In 1918, he was withdrawn from the trenches in which he had seen so many die, and he and his brother were employed by the British Ministry of Information to paint pictures of the war, ``for information and propaganda,'' as Paul put it.
John, in 1952, recalled that time (quoted from Sir John Rothenstein's 1983 book ``Paul Nash,'' now out of print): ``I remember we were very punctilious about working for the Ministry of Information all day and did not allow ourselves to do any of our own peacetime work until after 6 o'clock in the evenings! This [``The Cornfield''] was the first painting (not war) that I did after being released from the Army.''
IN Freer's book, ``The Cornfield'' is reproduced opposite ``Over the Top: 1st Artists' Rifles at Marcoing,'' which was one of Nash's most haunting war pictures: Bleak, Bruegel-like, miserable figures climb out of the trenches and cross the snow - and the contrast between the two pictures could hardly be stronger. It is as if the ghastliness of the war painting, coming straight from firsthand experience, instilled the peacetime idyll, so mellow and golden, with intense reality.
Freer relates ``The Cornfield'' to the poem by Siegfried Sassoon that begins ``Everyone suddenly burst out singing...'' and in particular to the line ``Oh and my heart was suddenly lifted.''
``The masterly simplicity of the design,'' Freer writes, ``the formality and boldness of the structure, the generous rhythms of the sweep of the land's contours and the sheaves of stooked corn - all the constituents working together compel one's admiration and wonder each time one sees it.''
Freer also finds a parallel in Thomas Traherne's words: ``The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it stood from everlasting to everlasting.''
Freer sees the ``Cornfield'' as: ''Affirming life and growth after four years of death and disintegration.'' To him, ``it testifies to a new found joy in living ....''