Battle of Britain, Battle of Germany – Paul Nash and his aviation landscape paintings

RICHARD MADDOX

 

FOUR YEARS – AND A REFINEMENT OF THE ARTIST’S STYLE – SEPARATE THE TWO PAINTINGS SHOWN BELOW.

Painted by Paul Nash (1) who – like his younger brother John – had served during the First World War on the Western Front before they both became official War Artists towards the end of that conflict.

Their work from this period depicts a soldier’s view of war – comrades, trenches, marches and battle-shattered landscapes.(2)

Come the Second World War, they were again called upon to produce artwork documenting the course of the war. John was attached to the Royal Navy (3) while Paul (who had become increasingly mesmerised by flying) documented the work of the Royal Air Force, initially on a six-month contract like his brother.

Starting in mid-March 1940 Nash planned to work on combat-related scenes. His first series of six watercolours (entitled ‘Raiders’ (4) and completed just before the Battle of Britain began) was well-received by the Air Ministry. However as his work became increasingly non-representational his popularity waned until his employment was ended in December 1940. (4)

Finding a post sponsored by the War Artist’s Advisory Committee (a section of the Ministry of Information) he again was producing images of RAF subjects. Here he painted three of his most famous works ‘Totes Meer’, ‘Battle of Britain’ and what was initially entitled ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ (later to be ‘Defence of Albion’) featuring a Short Sunderland aircraft of RAF Coastal Command, a section of the Royal Air Force working closely with the Royal Navy to provide convoy protection and maritime strike capabilities. (3)

Commissioned in November 1941 and completed by April 1942, when planning the latter painting, he wrote: “I am persistently hunted by a short Sutherland and I think it will play a large part in the composition“. (3)  Having never seen one close-up and unable to travel because of bad weather and the severity of his long-term asthma condition (he had endured an attack of bronchitis at the time) he wrote to fellow artist Eric Ravillous, who was depicting naval subjects at the time outlining his composition and asking for details of how the aircraft and an enemy U-boat might look in strong light (5) (6)

large_Paul_Nash_Battle_of Britain

Battle of Britain (Art.IWM ART LD 1550) by Paul Nash, 1940/41. Image © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20102

Submitting the completed ‘Battle of Britain’ painting to the War Artist’s Advisory Committee, Nash produced a description of the work:

‘The painting is an attempt to give the sense of an aerial battle in operation over a wide area and thus summarises England’s great aerial victory over Germany. The scene includes certain elements constant during the Battle of Britain – the river winding from the town and across parched country, down to the sea; beyond, the shores of the Continent, above, the mounting cumulus concentrating at sunset after a hot brilliant day; across the spaces of sky, trails of airplanes, smoke tracks of dead or damaged machines falling, floating clouds, parachutes, balloons. Against the approaching twilight new formations of Luftwaffe, threatening…’ (7)

It contains many of the elements we now associate with the battle; clear bright days, RAF fighters rising to defend Britain over southern England, a meandering river (reminiscent of the Thames) and long white contrails cutting across blue skies. Tethered barrage balloons stand guard, rooted to the British countryside, which is washed in the golden light of a setting sun.

There is also much symbolism.

Dark and occupied France (where the Luftwaffe operated from captured French air force bases) is separated by a narrow strip of water from bright (free) England.

Gleaming RAF fighters rise to meet the dark threat

Gleaming RAF fighters rise to meet the dark threat, while their outnumbered RAF squadron colleagues bravely soar and twist in an aerial ballet. The tracks of one group of RAF aircraft create a giant flower bud – flowers blooming being a recurring theme in much of Nash’s work.

The RAF create white contrails, the Luftwaffe aircraft fall at the end of spiralling black smoke trails indicating their loss of control. More German aircraft are shown in rigid formations, symbolising the unquestioning adherence to orders and obedience that many believed was German characteristic.

And of course in Nash’s painting no enemy aircraft ever reaches Britain…

large_Paul Nash_Battle_for_Germany

Battle of Germany (Art.IWM ART LD 4526) by Paul Nash, 1944. Image © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20104

The painting that became the ‘Battle of Germany’ was commissioned in September 1944, four years after the Battle of Britain had been fought and almost a year since the RAF had initiated the ‘Battle of Berlin’ a sustained bombing campaign not limited to the German capital but attacking targets throughout Germany.

Again Nash provided text to accompany his work;

‘The moment of the picture is when the city, lying under the uncertain light of the moon, awaits the blow at its heart. In the background, a gigantic column of smoke arises from the recent destruction of an outlying factory which is still fiercely burning. These two objects pillar and moon seem to threaten the city no less than the flights of bombers even now towering in the red sky. The moon’s illumination reveals the form of the city but with the smoke pillar’s increasing height and width, throws also its largening shadow nearer and nearer.

In contrast to the suspense of the waiting city under the quiet though baleful moon, the other half of the picture shows the opening of the bombardment. The entire area of sky and background and part of the middle distance are violently agitated. Here forms are used quite arbitrarily and colours by a kind of chromatic percussion with one purpose, to suggest explosion and detonation. In the central foreground the group of floating discs descending may be a part of a flight of paratroops or the crews of aircraft forced to bale out…’ (8)

The chairman of the WAAC Kenneth Clark was supportive and appreciative of the work but concerned at its complexity.

Comparing the two images above, Nash’s painting style is more abstract and his text seems less of an accompaniment to his work as an explanation of what his picture contains.

Symbolism is present again in the dull red-brown, white and vivid blue coloured streaks over German territory. A full moon (similar to that in his painting ‘Totes Meer’) hangs low in the sky, perhaps over Britain, illuminating the grey water.

The painting is so ‘loose’ in its style that one can read almost what they wish into it, within the contexts of the title and with the knowledge that it depicts an aerial attack.

As in Nash’s text the smaller white circles towards the bottom of the painting may be parachute (or ‘Roses of Death’ as he called them after the name the Spanish gave to them during the Spanish Civil War), (9) but for me they could also be the light of exploding incendiary bombs dropped by the attacking bombers.

Bomber Command have stated that the picture ‘Battle of Germany’ by Paul Nash is no longer required.

Perhaps because of this ambiguity there is a comment in a report dated September 1947 by AHB 4, (a section of the RAF’s Air Historical Branch that oversaw the allocation of RAF and German equipment as well as artworks to RAF Commands, Allied and Commonwealth Governments and major museums) that reads…

‘Bomber Command have stated that the picture ‘Battle of Germany’ by Paul Nash is no longer required. It is being returned to A.H.B. 4.(10)

 

References and further information

(1) https://bbm.org.uk/airmen/PaulNash.htm – retrieved 21 February 2018

(2) https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-powerful-western-front-paintings-of-the-nash-brothers – retrieved 21 February 2018

(3)  https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1050000808 – retrieved 21 February 2018

(4)  http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nash-bomber-in-the-corn-n05715 – retrieved 21 February 2018

(5)  https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1050000819 – retrieved 21 February 2018

(6)  https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20103 – retrieved 23 February 2018

(7)  Eric Ravillous: Memoir of an Artist, Helen Binyon, Lutterworth Press (2016). Pages 127 and 128 – undated letter from Nash to Ravillous,

(8)  https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20102 – retrieved 23 February 2018

(9)   https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20104 – retrieved 23 February 2018

(10)   http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/a-landscape-of-mortality-paul-nash – retrieved 23 February 2018

(11) ‘AHB4 Progress Report – September 1947’. Paragraph 7, subsection (ii) held at National Archives, Kew, England. File reference AIR 20/6289 – AIR MINISTRY: General (Code7/1): AHB (4) report on the collection and preservation for material for museum purposes. EXHIBITIONS, DISPLAYS, FETES AND MUSEUMS. (Code 33): Collection and preservation for material for museum purposes. AHB (4) reports

A selection of examples of Nash’s ‘Raiders’ series can be found at:

‘Raider on the moor’ https://www.goldmarkart.com/art-for-sale/raider-on-the-moor – retrieved 24 February 2018

‘Raider on the shore’ https://bbm.org.uk/airmen/NashRaiderShore.htm – retrieved 24 February 2018

 

Other examples of Nash’s wartime depiction of wrecked German aircraft during the Battle of Britain period (often with a description of the event that inspired them) can be found at:

https://bbm.org.uk/airmen/PaulNashindex.htm – retrieved 24 February 2018