Specialist Philip Harley discusses a poignant and powerful work dating from 100 years ago, on the Front Line at one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War — offered in the Modern British & Irish Art Evening Sale in London
‘This drawing is an extraordinary view into Paul Nash’s experience as a soldier in the trenches,’ says Philip Harley, Senior Director of Modern British Pictures in London, of A Farm, Wytschaete, a landscape depicting the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, one of the First World War’s bloodiest conflicts. ‘Before the war, Nash’s works were lyrical, poetic and dreamlike,’ Harley explains, ‘while those from the trenches at Passchendaele are incredibly intense.’
Nash (1889-1946) volunteered with the Artists’ Rifles from 1914, but was invalided home at the start of 1917. A few weeks later, almost his entire company died when they were sent ‘over the top’. ‘Nash must have felt incredibly lucky that he wasn’t killed, but I imagine he also held an enormous sense of guilt in surviving — as many soldiers at the time felt,’ says Harley. ‘The experience had a huge impact on his art, and it stayed with him for the rest of his life.’
The Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, took place from 31 July to 6 November 1917. In those three months, the Allied and German forces suffered a combined 585,000 casualties. The poet Siegfried Sassoon referred to the horrors in Memorial Tablet (Great War) (1918): ‘I died in Hell. They called it Passchendaele.’
Once recovered, Nash was drafted to Passchendaele during the battle’s final stages, and what he saw there changed his perception of war. ‘I am no longer an artist interested & curious,’ he wrote to his wife Margaret. ‘I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever… May it burn their lousy souls.’
A Farm, Wytschaete was a metaphorical depiction of the events. ‘Nash’s work as a war artist forbade him from showing human figures,’ the specialist explains. ‘We know from a 1918 reproduction in The War — a special edition of The Studio magazine — that this drawing was first passed through the censors of the Ministry of Information.’ The artist instead used the landscape to represent the fallen soldiers, shown in the ‘gaping, wound-like red earth and the lurid sulphuric colours’.
‘We know from Nash's wife that his drawings were sometimes splattered with mud from nearby exploding shells, and he would use it to give the artwork more colour’
Nash would have started this drawing in the trenches, then finished it when he returned to England. Harley points out that ‘the mount behind the drawing is original and you can see little marks on it, and the edges of the paper — these were Nash’s original marks, so he could continue working on it when he left the front line. We know from Nash’s wife that his drawings were sometimes splattered with mud from nearby exploding shells, and he would use it to give the artwork more colour.’
‘The drawing looks as though it depicts both day and night, with the sky lit up from the explosion of bombs,’ the specialist continues. ‘The blasted trees all along the horizon are a motif that Nash uses again, for example in one of his most famous paintings, We Are Making a New World (1918) in the Imperial War Museum’s collection.’
In May 1918, Nash exhibited A Farm, Wytschaete and 55 other drawings and paintings inspired by his experience at Passchendaele, at the Leicester Galleries, London. This exhibition brought him critical acclaim and established his reputation as one of the leading artists of his generation. Most of the works displayed in that show are now in major public collections, including the Imperial War Museum and the National Gallery of Canada.
A Farm, Wytschaete was purchased directly from the exhibition by Charles Maresco Pearce, a prolific collector and artist in his own right, and remained in his family for almost a century. The work will now be offered in Christie’s Modern British & Irish Art Evening Sale on 26 June in London.
The major retrospective of Nash’s works at Tate Britain, London, in early 2017 was, Harley insists, a timely and powerful reminder of the artist’s skill and reputation. Top-quality works on paper by Nash executed during the First World War very rarely appear on the market.
‘It’s an extraordinarily poignant image and is in museum-quality condition,’ Harley says. ‘The bold colours give it a very modern feel; I find it hard to believe that it was executed nearly 100 years ago.’