Curator’s Choice – The Rye Marshes by Paul Nash

Posted: 2nd June 2020

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – The Rye Marshes by Paul Nash

The first work I have selected from the Ferens collection is The Rye Marshes, 1932, by Paul Nash (1889-1946). This cubist landscape work depicts the coastal marshes at Rye, a small harbour town in East Sussex. Nash has used concentrated colour and form to create a series of interlocking geometric shapes which make up the scene. I was drawn to this work because of its graphic qualities and somewhat melancholy tone. The concise forms and sharp lines create an intriguing landscape. This strangeness is characteristic of Nash’s paintings and grows out of the tension between his desire to capture the spirit of a place and his love of formal clarity. Rather than depicting the wildlife of the coastal environment, Nash has created an almost industrial scene, lacking in human presence. I find the contradictions of the image invite me to keep looking, as if I might spot the movement of a cloud, or the rush of water.

Nash was 25 at the outbreak of the First World War, and in 1917 following an injury in the trenches he was appointed as an official War Artist. During this period he created some of the most iconic images of the conflict. Nash saw himself as a messenger reporting back the true horror of the war and his devastating landscapes reflected his feelings of outrage.

After the First World War Nash returned home but suffered to adjust to civilian life. He first lived in Dymchurch on the Romney Marshes, and then moved to live near Rye. The quiet countryside of these locations helped Nash recover from the effects of the war on his health. During this time Nash continued to focus on landscape painting, creating a number of lonely, desolate works.

The Rye Marshes, 1932, was commissioned by Shell as part of their ‘Everywhere You Go, You Can Be Sure of Shell’ advertising campaign. The aim of the advertising was to encourage the newly mobile, post-war public to explore the British countryside by car, and coincided with the Shell Guides which promoted tourism in the UK – for which Nash produced a guide to Dorset. Nash was one of many young artists to be commissioned for these poster campaigns – others included: Graham Sutherland, Vanessa Bell and John Piper. Many of the artists commissioned went on to become integral to the development of modern British art.

Nash was influenced by the avant-garde European styles of the time and throughout the 1930s his works became increasingly abstract and surreal. In 1933, a year after painting The Rye Marshes, Nash co-founded Unit One, an influential modern art movement that included artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson. Nash’s aim for Unit One was to champion ‘the expression of a truly contemporary spirit’. Although the movement was short-lived it was hugely significant, helping to revitalise British Art and secure Nash as a pioneer of modernism in Britain.

At the start of World War Two Nash was again appointed as an official War Artist. Despite pressure from the RAF to create portraits of their pilots and aircrew, Nash once more focussed on creating haunting landscape works. Nash died in 1946, just one year after VE Day.

Having studied The Rye Marshes more closely I find it interesting to discover that this mysterious, angular landscape is in fact one of Nash’s more cheery works, created in the inter-war period as part of a commercial campaign celebrating a new freedom of movement. Perhaps the stillness and relative calm of this landscape painting was an antidote to the frantic and horrifying scenes he had captured at war. It also feels a particularly pertinent scene, as we once again look forward to a day trip to the coast.

Written by Exhibitions Assistant, Elizabeth Lindley

Tell Us What You Think

We’d love to know what you thought about our From the Stores blogs. Your responses will help inform our decision-making around programming of future works, both digital and in-person. Please help by completing our short survey Click here to Complete Survey