Surrealist Swanage : Paul Nash
With Dorset Arts Week in full swing, we have a guest article on Paul Nash - one of Britain’s most famous surrealist painters and war artists. In the 1930s he lived and worked in Swanage, Dorset and it had a profound effect on his life and art…
Swanage, the eastern gateway to the Jurassic Coast, has long since been considered a gem of the south. The Victorian seaside town is unstained by high-rise holiday homes and retains the quaint charm of a time-gone-by. With Punch ‘n’ Judy shows, sandy beaches, ice cream parlours and a 60s sea front cinema, basic pleasures are in abundance. But it’s not just great in summer - with beautiful sweeping views of the Purbecks, fresh seafood and a sense of community at its core, the quirky town can capture hearts all year round.
However, when Paul Nash (1889–1946), Britain’s most famous war artist, came to live there in 1934 he fell in love with it for different reasons entirely. For him Swanage was a place of ‘natural surrealism’.
Nash had originally moved to Dorset with his wife Margaret in the hope that the sea air would help his asthma. First living in a farm house by Ballard Head, then a seafront apartment, the climate certainly did help. Nash was able to regain his strength enough to create a series of wonderful surrealist paintings, undertake a Dorset: Shell Guide commission and embark on a passionate affair with the artist Eileen Agar.
Paul Nash, Event on the Downs, 1934
Although far removed from the Paris Surrealist group, it was in Swanage that Nash really began to forge his own connection with the movement. Soon after arriving he read a review in which a critic insisted he was surrealist artist, and he found this appealing, writing “They planted ideas in my mind which, deliberately, I allowed to grow, I began gradually to discover that Swanage was definitely ... surrealist."
But what about the unassuming seaside town was so surreal to the artist? In a 1936 essay, entitled Swanage or Seaside Surrealism, he wrote that the place had something "of a dream image where things are so often incongruous and slightly frightening in their relation to time or place." The town had evolved from Jurassic roots, and been the site where King Alfred fought off the Danes, to become a quarrying town that was then regenerated into a ‘nice watering place’ for families.
Subsequently, for Nash, Swanage was a place of mass visual inconstancy with peculiar landmarks and scenery so out of context that it verged on the absurd. He rationalised that this made the town surreal, referring to the Surrealist leader, Andre Breton’s, notion that a statue on a street is just a statue, but a statue in a field is in a “state of surrealism.”
Firstly, Nash considered the Alfred Monument “ludicrous” and thought it would convince viewers they were “merely part of a dream”. Erected in 1862, the stone column with a pyramid of cannon-balls atop was built to commemorate King Alfred’s battle in 877AD, hundreds of years before cannons were even used.
Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream, 1936 -38
He then moves on to the façade of the town hall and the huge clock-tower that is missing the actual clock arguing they too contribute to uneasiness. The façade, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was taken from Mercers Hall on Cheapside, and the redundant clock tower originally belonged in London Bridge; decidedly incongruous next to the Victorian promenade.
Nash writes of the journey up the “tortuous path” past the sign to the Tilly Whim caves, their name hastening ‘growing apprehension’, to Durlston Castle. Instead of finding beautiful ruins one is greeted by a ‘solid structure of turrets and castellated walls.” With the addition of the fossil remains that show the town was a ‘haunt of turtles and crocodiles’ one can see why Nash considered Swanage so strange.
Nash’s assessment of Swanage as dream-like town aside, the views from his window certainly helped create some fabulous surrealist paintings. Event on the Downs (1934), which depicts a tree trunk and a giant tennis ball heading off together on a journey, and Landscape from a Dream (1936 -38), a clifftop scene with bird and mirror, were praised by Breton.
Paul Nash, Swanage, 1936
Swanage was also the place where found objects became central to Nash’s work, and he developed the concept of the ‘object-personage’. In 1934 he discovered a piece of drift wood on the beach, which he named Marsh Personage, describing how he ‘was instantly and intensely aware of being in the presence of what he could only describe as a “personage”’. The idea was that certain inanimate objects have a life force and he created encounters between them, arranging rocks, bones, driftwood, and other objects into compositions. His collage Swanage (1936) includes Marsh Personage and is set to the backdrop of the Dorset beach.
Nash summarises Swanage by writing “Quite apart from its superb natural setting, its quarry landscapes and its lovely bay, it has a strange fascination like all things that combine beauty, ugliness and the power to disquiet.” Perhaps, he is right. Swanage is an entirely unique town laden with history. Whether you consider it surreal, or simply enjoy its very real attributes, it is definitely worth a visit. Who knows, it might just be the dream from which you never want to wake.