The War Art of Paul Nash (1917–1944)


The work of the English artist Paul Nash (1889–1946) — one of the most important landscape artists of the twentieth century — entered the public domain this year in many countries around the world. It is in his depictions of the destroyed and broken landscapes of the First and Second World War, which we are celebrating in this post, that perhaps we see Nash’s talent and his engagement with modernity most acutely visible. As the art historian T. J. Clark comments, “it seems that the 20th century only came to Nash, as something paintable, in the form of total war”.

Nash spent the few years preceding the war studying art in London — including a curtailed stint at the Slade, with Ben Nicholson and Dora Carrington among others — followed by a few exhibitions, on occasion with his also very talented brother John. With the outbreak of the First World War Nash enlisted, albeit reluctantly, as a private for home service in the Second Battalion, a position which allowed him time to continue making art without too much interruption. In the summer of 1916, however, Nash began officer training and by February the following year was on the Western Front at the Ypres Salient as a second lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment. A relatively quiet few months in the region spared him the full intensity of the Front, before he had to be airlifted back to London an invalid after falling into a trench. A few days later, in an assault on their position known as Hill 60, most of his unit was killed. While recuperating for his injuries, Nash produced a series of drawings, working from sketches made at the Front, and exhibited them in June to a positive reception. Encouraged by the response he succesfully applied to become an official war artist, and in November 1917 returned to the Ypres Salient as a uniformed observer complete with batman and driver. After six weeks at the Front, working at a frantic pace and taking frequent risks to get as close as possible to the action, Nash emerged with what he described as “fifty drawings of muddy places”. Over the next years he would use these drawings to create many of the iconic paintings featured below.

The interwar period saw Nash continue to push boundaries with his work, taking it into ever more surreal and experimental realms — his “love of the monstrous and magical”, as he described it, leading him “beyond the confines of natural appearances into unreal worlds”. With the outbreak of World War Two the War Artists’ Advisory Committee appointed Nash as a full-time salaried war artist post attached to the Royal Air Force and the Air Ministry. The works he produced, not without controversy, would become ever-more abstract, culminating in his final piece for the WAAC entitled Battle of Germany in September 1944. Eighteen months later, on 11 July 1946, he died in his sleep from heart failure brought on by the severity of his long-term asthma.

Housed at: Wikimedia Commons | From: Imperial War Museum.
Underlying Work: PD 70 years | Digital Copy: PD Wikimedia
Download: Right click on image or see source for higher res versions

First World War



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Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917.


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Mont St Eloi, 1917.


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Down from the Line, 1917


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Indians in Belgium, 1917.


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Large red sun setting over the hills, 1917.


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Drawing of the passage of an advance, with wrecked trenches and broken country at dawn, 1917.


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View across a devastated Western Front landscape towards Lake Zillebeke in Belgium, 1917


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Rain – Lake Zillebeke, 1918.


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Ruined Country – Old Battlefield, Vimy, near La Folie Wood, 1918.


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View across a battle scarred Western Front landscape near Gheluveldt in Flanders, 1918.


A Shell Bursting, Passchendaele, 1918.
A Shell Bursting, Passchendaele, 1918.


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A column of British soldiers marching down the road, 1918.


A devastated landscape, pocked with rain-filled shell-holes, 1918.


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View of a Western Front battlefield in the aftermath of battle, 1918.


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The Landscape, Hill 60, 1918.


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The Ypres Salient at Night, 1918.


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The Mule Track, 1918.


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We are Making a New World, 1918.


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Void of War, 1918.


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The Menin Road, 1919. Commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee who wanted a painting of a battlefield scene for the Hall of Remembrance project.


Second World War



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Target Area, Whitley Bombers over Berlin, 1940.


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Totes Meer (Dead Sea), 1940-1. (NB: Unlike the others here, not courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, bur rather the Tate.)


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Battle of Britain, 1941.


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Defence of Albion, 1942. A Sunderland flying boat on a stormy sea off the coast of Portland. Part of a U-Boat is visable in front of the plane.


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Battle of Germany, 1944.