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Nash & Ravilious: The Art of the British Downs

  • 7 min read

 

For centuries artists have been depicting this green and pleasant land. Britain has a long and rich tradition of landscape painting, with greats such as Turner, Constable and Gainsborough exploring quintessentially English pastoral scenes. We’re going to take a closer look at two of our favourite landscape artists, Nash and Ravilious, and explore their relationships with the Downs in the South East of England. Let this be a guide to exploring both the art and the landscape!

 

The word ‘Downs’ comes from the Old English word ‘dun’ meaning ‘hill’. The North Downs are a ridge of chalk hills that stretch from Farnham in Surrey to the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent, including the Surrey Hill and the Kent Downs. The South Downs are a morphologically similar range of hills which run roughly parallel across the south-eastern coastal counties, from the Itchen Valley of Hampshire in the west to Beachy Head, East Sussex, in the east. The downs are characterised by rolling chalk downland with sheep-grazed turf and dry valleys.

Paul Nash

One of the most original British artists of the first half of the 20th century, Paul Nash is celebrated for his lyrical depictions of the British landscape, his Surrealist imagery, and his work as a War Artist. Born in 1889, Nash began his career as an Edwardian landscapist, painting ink and watercolour trees and gardens, and the open hills of Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Later, he became fascinated by the stone circles, ancient tracks and buried signs of ancient Britain, especially the Iron Age hill forts of the Downs.

 

Paul Nash served as a war artist during the First World War, and died shortly after the Second World War. After training at the Slade School he served in the war, was wounded and in 1917 he was sent as a war artist to Ypres. He was expected to operate from GHQ but he protested, “I am determined to operate around the Front Line trenches... I realise no one in England knows what the scene of war is like... If I can, I will show them.”

After the war, Nash suffered from a severe breakdown, diagnosed as ‘war strain’. He found solace in the English countryside, recuperating in a cottage her rented with his wife Margaret, in Dymchurch on the Kent coast. Nash found the seaside town on Romney Marsh “a delightful place with much inspiring material for work.”

Paul Nash formed a string connection to Dymchurch and the ancient landscape of nearby Romney Marsh. These landscapes became a preoccupation in his work until the mid 1920s. He was particularly drawn to the vast sea wall, a man-made structure designed to protect the Marsh from the flooding sea. It’s the subject of ‘Shore’ which is simultaneously abstract, architectural and descriptive, giving perfect expression to Nash’s extraordinary sense of place.

In 1924, Paul Nash discovered Ivinghoe Beacon in north Buckinghamshire, “an enchanted place in the hills girdled by wild beech woods, dense and lonely places where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dryad.” The beech tree copses and rolling hills soon became the subject of one of his most-loved landscapes, ‘Wood on The Downs’. The beech trees rise in a sculptural wave over the hills whilst the chalk of the downland reflects the light from the spring sky. “It was a lovely day for the drive,” Nash remarked about the day he discovered the beacon, “But devilish cold for drawing when we got to the hills... The woods in the hollow below were crowded with wild pigeons which alternately sailed in the clouds over the tops of the trees or settled in the branches where they sat so thick the woods looked like monstrous orchards bursting into bloom.”

‘Dead Tree Romney Marsh’ reveals how Nash was inspired not only to paint, but to photograph the natural scenes of South East England. Nash once wrote, “There are places... whose relationship of parts creates a mystery, an enchantment.” He believed that certain ancient sites had a talismanic quality, a “genius loci”, or spirit. He linked this with his recent discovery of Surrealism to offer a new way of seeing the English countryside. The Tate explains how, “these links confirmed his view that the origins of Surrealism were embedded in English culture: from the fantasy landscapes of Samuel Palmer and the Romantic poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge to the nonsense writing of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.”

Surrealist imagery and themes can be found in ‘Event on the Downs’. In 1934, Nash and his wife moved to Swanage in Dorset. He had asthma and hoped the coastal climate would help. ‘Event on the Downs’ is a depiction of the view from his window at Whitecliff Farm on Ballard Down just outside Swanage. In the foreground of the discernible south coast landscape are a tree truck and a giant tennis ball, both of which are recurrent themes in Nash’s art. It’s possible to recognise the influence of Surrealist artists such as Rene Magritte and Georgio de Chirico in the incongruous placement, although Paul Nash considered his approach to be individualistic, rather than one directly motivated by the Surrealist manifestos.

Paul Nash evidently adored the British downs with their ancient uplands and his paintings of Iron Age hill forts, track ways, and sacred sites span a region from the Dorset coast to the northern tip of the Chilterns. From post-war solace to surreal inspiration, the countryside of South East England was evidently an uplifting force in Nash’s life and art. His sensitive and articulate landscapes beautifully embody his position as a Modern artist in an Ancient landscape.

Eric Ravilious

After the war, Paul Nash taught in the Design School at the Royal College of Art where his students included Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious. Artist Eric Ravilious’ native land was the south coast, specifically Sussex. As a boy he moved to Eastbourne, where his parents ran an antique shop and he later won a scholarship to Eastbourne School of Art and in 1922 another to study at the Design School at the Royal College of Art.

Despite travelling to Italy, living in Hammersmith, London, and settling in rural Essex with his wife Eileen ‘Tirzah’ Garwood, Eric Ravilious frequently return to the countryside of the South East and the South Downs became his signature stomping ground.

Although Eric Ravilious was becoming known primarily as a wood engraver, his ambition was to revive the English watercolour tradition. He followed a broadly pastoral heritage, depicting the South Downs villages that might be described as part of a “quintessentially English” landscape. “Eric Ravilious’s love of Sussex produced some forceful art,” Tom Lubbock wrote in the Independent.

In 1934, Eric Ravilious was invited by the artist Peggy Angus, a contemporary and friend of his from the Royal College of Art, to stay at her cottage on the South Downs, just west of Firl. The cottage, ‘Furlongs’, was a flint-faced shepherd’s cottage below Beddingham Hill on the Firle Estate. Angus, who taught at Eastbourne, had discovered Furlongs the year before and had set about creating an interior as curious and as beautiful as that of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell’s house nearby at Charleston. She filled the cottage with a series of paintings of the Sussex countryside by herself and her contemporaries.

Peggy Angus described Furlongs as “the matrix of much strange and inventive creation” and it became the gathering place of many artists, including Edward Bawden, Percy Horton, John and Myfanwy Piper, Maurice de Saumarez, and Eric Ravilious. Over the following years Eric and Tirzah, and their children, visited frequently. When Ravilious visited he said he felt, “he had come to his own country”, and many of his best landscape paintings were inspired by this stretch of Sussex land.

You can see Furlongs at the foot of ‘Beddingham Hill’ in ‘Furlongs’ and the garden in ‘Tea at Furlongs’. You can also glimpse the surrounding chalk fields through the windows in ‘Interior at Furlongs, 1939’. ‘Caravans’ is one of the many landscapes Ravilious painted whilst staying with Peggy Agnus. The two caravans are old fever wagons from the Boer War that Ravilious purchased and parked at the nearby chalk pits. He made one into a bedroom and the other into a studio so he could surround himself with the scenery of the South Downs.

Like Paul Nash, Ravilious was drawn to the chalky cliffs of ‘Beachy Head’ and the ancient chalk figures, such as ‘The Wilmington Giant.’ Of the latter, Tom Lubbock wrote in the Indpendent, “He’s more interested again in play – between the broad, smooth uniformity of a view and the chaos of minute detail. See the black barbed wire and the rusty fences, strung across the grass and sky. These knotted, twining, wiggling lines crawl over the landscape – and make a contrast, too, against the fat white rounded drawing of the hill figure.”

Most of Ravilious’ rural views, despite their absence of figures, deal in the man-made. As well as being influenced by modernism, Ravilious’ art engaged with modernity – his pastoral scenes are sharpened by fences, barbed-wire, cement pits, ploughs, roads, and pylons. The absence of walkers, farmers and operators, however, lends a certain sadness to the poignant beauty of the pictures. The combination of the ancient natural forms with the human debris reveals the force of the Sussex landscape and the fierceness of Ravilious’ painting.

Ravilious’ austerely beautiful watercolours were rooted in his fascination with the British downs. The geographical landscape offered him the freedom and impetuts to advance British Modernism. As a celebrated war artist of the Second World War, Ravilious’ landscapes have been interpreted as symbols of Englishness and defiance. Like Paul Nash’s, they capture the beauty, mystery, and complexity of this ancient landscape.

Roused by these Ravilious and Nash landscapes we’re off to don our walking boots and embark on a Nash/Ravilious inspired stomp around the Downs!

Image credits:

Paul Nash, Dead Tree, Romney Marsh © Tate, London, 2012

Paul Nash, The Wall, Dymchurch circa 1923, Engraving on paper, image: 127 x 203 mmPresented by the Trustees of the Paul Nash Trust 1971© Tate

John Holloway - Long Man of Wilmington

Fishing nets laid out on the slipway at Newhaven Harbour photo - with acknowledgement to the Pilton Elderly Project group who compiled an exhibition of old photos of Granton

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