The Call of Wittenham Clumps

Samuel Hynes

  • Paul Nash by Andrew Causey
    Oxford, 511 pp, £35.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 19 817348 2
  • The Enemy by Jeffrey Meyers
    Routledge, 391 pp, £15.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0514 8
  • Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation edited by Jeffrey Meyers
    Athlone, 276 pp, £13.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 485 11193 4
  • Wyndham lewis by Jane Farrington
    Lund Humphries, 128 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 85331 434 9

Wyndham Lewis had a phrase for himself and those of his contemporaries whom he considered worthy of his company: he called them ‘The Men of 1914’. The phrase has a nice martial ring, and it is not surprising that critics have taken it up: but it implies a historical point that one simply can’t make. 1914 was the year the war started: but it didn’t start then for any of Lewis’s ‘Men’. Indeed, it never started at all for Pound, or Eliot, or Joyce, and for Lewis it had to be delayed for two years while he cured himself of the clap. It would be more accurate, and better history, to think of the Men of 1914 simply as members of the generation of the 1880s, along with Bartok, Berg, Braque, Epstein, Gropius, Keynes, Kokoschka, D. H. Lawrence, T. E. Lawrence, Picasso, Stravinsky and Virginia Woolf; and with Chiang Kai-shek, Hitler, Mussolini and Roosevelt, not to mention Sam Goldwyn and Charlie Chaplin. These are the men and women who made the modern world, and the Modernist expression of it: their identity as a generation is more important than 1914, a year in which some of them began to fight a war, but more of them didn’t.

To be a member of a generation is not, of course, to be identical with the other members: but it does imply certain common historical experiences. There will be similarities, and these are likely to be historically significant: there will also be differences. Consider, for example, the two best English painters of the Eighties generation – Paul Nash and Lewis. In their early careers there are some remarkable resemblances: in both cases public school was followed by study at the Slade, early recognition by older artists, exhibitions (they were both represented in the ‘English Post-Impressionists and Cubists’ show at Brighton in 1913), work with Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop, and then the Army and the Western Front, first as combatants and later as official War Artists. But their responses to these common experiences were very different, for they were antithetically unlike as men and as artists. The opposition that they represent is not simply a matter of personal differences, though: it marks a dualism that runs through the art and thought of their generation in England.

In the summer of 1914 Paul Nash was a 25-year-old, somewhat naive painter of water-colour landscapes. Though Roger Fry’s two Post-Impressionist shows had only recently come and gone, Nash had apparently been untouched by them: in 1914 he seemed to know nothing of modern European art, and to be entirely content to work within the English romantic tradition to which he obviously belonged. He had begun as a painter-poet, like Blake and Rossetti, both of whom he admired, and though the poems stopped, he remained a literary painter. His early pictures were often influenced by the books he read (sometimes poems by Tennyson, Rossetti and Yeats, sometimes sentimental popular novels by writers such as W. J. Locke, E. F. Benson and Algernon Blackwood); and those that did not have literary sources were often literary in the other sense – they suggested stories, or hinted at situations and meanings beyond their literal subjects. One might argue that literary painting in this latter sense is at the centre of the tradition of English romantic painting, from Blake through Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites to Sickert: certainly it was Nash’s tradition.

When the war began, Nash enlisted at once, and after training and a commission he was sent to the Front, saw action in the Ypres salient, was injured in a trench accident, and returned to England. Though he went to war as a fighting soldier, he first saw it as a painter. On his first tour of duty the war seemed to him simply a new kind of landscape experience. He was excited by the ‘wonderful ruinous forms’ of the battlefields, and he wrote home ecstatically: ‘Oh, these wonderful trenches at night, at dawn, at sundown. Shall I ever lose the picture they have made in my mind.’

He never lost the picture, but it changed as the war went on, and the cruelty and terror of it invaded his imagination. When he later returned to France as a War Artist, he saw it in another way. ‘No pen or drawing can convey this country,’ he wrote home in 1917. ‘Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.’ This is a landscape painting in words, but it is also a kind of anti-landscape, as though the war, truly seen, had annihilated romantic nature and with it the whole romantic idea of natural benevolence, the something far more deeply interfused that Wordsworth saw there.

Nash’s war paintings are like that, too – empty, torn landscapes of broken trees, shell holes and mud, bruised clouds and black rain, pictures that read like elegies for the dead and violated earth. The lines are hard and geometrical, or shapeless lumpy curves; there are few human beings, and when they appear they too are geometrical and mechanical-looking. The mood is of a desolation that has entered the very method of the painting, as though war had destroyed even the living, natural line of landscape. (‘The Menin Road’, in the Imperial War Museum, is a powerful example.) Nash was still seeing the Front as a painter, but he was no longer feeling it as a painter. ‘I am no longer an artist interested and curious,’ he wrote to his wife from France. ‘I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.’

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