Blackbirds are notorious for being able to mimic the sounds they hear as they hop about the celestial chimney pots of suburbia. Ice cream van jingles, phone ring tones, car alarms and ambulance sirens – they can do the lot.
John Drinkwater – born in Leytonstone, London – writes about the song of the blackbird in Loyalties – the anthology of his poems that was illustrated by Paul Nash and published in 1919.
A recent London trip allowed me to indulge my current Paul Nash craze. First there was the Imperial War Museum where I was less than impressed by the current First World War exhibit. Not a patch of ye olde Trench Experience of yesteryear, but there you have it. At least there was The Mule Track.
It’s hard to see the actual mule train overshadowed as it is by the explosive violence in a shattered landscape. .
Here is the horrifying detail from the center of the painting that shows the mules rearing in panic at the nearby explosion as water from a flooded trench bursts up like a fountain. The sky is full of yellow grey smoke and rubble thrown up by the shell. The actual track seems folded up like a collapsing Jacob’s ladder and one of the drivers has been blown off to the side. It’s a landscape of fractured planes and blasted trees; a place of violence and shock.
Paul Nash – like his younger brother John – served in the Artists Rifles and was then appointed an official war artist for both world wars. This work was commissioned by the Ministry of Information.
The war had a profound effect on Nash. His biographer Anthony Bertram said: “most of the other artists saw an explosion; but the explosion took place within Nash.”. He expressed that anger in his paintings.
While at the front, he wrote to his wife:
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.
He was physically and psychologically damaged by the war. It left him with what we now call PTSD and a mental breakdown. A gas attack at Passchendaele in 1917 ruined his lungs and contributed to his premature death by pneumonia at the age of 57 in 1946.
And so on to the British Museum for the exhibit Places of the Mind: British Watercolour Landscapes 1850–1950 – an exhibition of work drawn mostly from the Museum’s own collection and devoted to landscapes by British artists in the Victorian and modern eras – the century that followed the death of J M W Turner. It includes works by James McNeil Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones, David Jones, John Singer Sargent, Muirhead Bone, John Nash, John Minton, Eric Ravilious, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland and – of course – Paul Nash.
1850 – 1950 was a turbulent one hundred years of change and conflict and the work reflects that. These landscapes are constructs of the mind and imagination conveying the physical properties of a scene together with an effort to capture a distinct sense of place and meaning.
So interesting to see the abstract geometrical lines merged with the flow of the water and the natural contours of the clouds.
What a wonderfully hopeful picture. Spring is coming indeed and perhaps the dark times are in the past.
This is Madams in Gloucestershire which became a place of serenity and refuge during WW2. For Nash it was an “other” world.
Another painting of Madams – his personal Cotswold paradise.
I’ve just ordered a copy of Nash’s autobiography – Outline – so this Nash phase doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon.
But – “Where’s the poem?” you ask. Turns out that Nash did set out to be a poet as well as an artist but decided that prose was a better medium or him. He did design and illustrate many books of poetry though, the first if which was John Drinkwater’s Loyalties 1919. Drinkwater – who was already hopelessly outdated by the time of this publication – was still writing the Georgian verse that the war and T.S.Eliot (and others) had rendered hopelessly out of step with the times.
Here is Blackbird – you have to love those celestial chimney pots! It’s followed by two of Nash’s wood engravings used to illustrate the verse.
He comes on chosen evenings,
My blackbird bountiful, and sings
Over the garden of the town
Just at the hour the sun goes down.
His flight across the chimneys thick,
By some divine arithmetic,
Comes to his customary stack,
And couches there his plumage black,
And there he lifts his yellow bill,
Kindled against the sunset, till
These suburbs are like Dymock woods
Where music has her solitudes,
And while he mocks the winter’s wrong
Rapt on his pinnacle of song,
Figured above our garden plots
Those are celestial chimney-pots.
by John Drinkwater