The Field Before the Wood signed indistinctly (lower left) and again with monogram (lower right) ink, pencil, chalk and watercolour 36.8 x 30.5 cm. (14 1/2 x 12 in.) Executed in 1912
PROVENANCE: Alice Last, 1912 D. Baden Powell Private Collection, since 1959
EXHIBITED: London, Carfax & Co., Drawings by Paul Nash (1), November 1912
LITERATURE: Margot Eates (Ed.), Paul Nash, Paintings, Drawings and Illustrations, Lund Humphries, 1948, pl.6 C.C. Abbott and Anthony Bertram (Ed.), Poet and Painter: Being the Correspondence between Gordon Bottomley and Paul Nash 1910-1946, Oxford University Press, 1955 (pp.44, 46 & 48) Andrew Causey, Paul Nash, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980, cat.no.39, p.27, pl.28 (ill.b&w)
It was in May 1912, the year that The Field Before the Wood is believed to have been drawn, that Nash's mentor, Sir William Richmond gave him the advice to 'go in for nature'. It was also in this year that Nash drew his seminal work, The Three (see Fig.1), which sold in these rooms for £86,000 on 8 March 2005. With Richmond's advice in mind Nash left his rooms in Chelsea for his parental home, Wood Lane House at Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire. It was the Bird Garden at the Iver Heath home that was to prove an inspiration to the artist as he sought to transpose his ideas on nature and the natural world into pictorial terms. As Roger Cardinal states, it was the Bird Garden, 'where it all began' (R.Cardinal, The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash, London, 1989, p63). Nash sketched the elm-bounded garden from the vantage point of the morning room. In his autobiography Outline, Nash wrote how 'Its magic lay within itself, implicated in its own design and its relationship to its surroundings. In addition, it seemed to respond in a dramatic way to the influence of light. There were moments when, through this agency, the place took on a startling beauty, a beauty to my eyes wholly unreal. It was this 'unreality', or rather this reality of another aspect of the accepted world, this mystery of clarity which was at once so elusive and so positive, that I now began to pursue and which from that moment drew me into itself and absorbed my life.' (quoted in R.Cardinal, Loc.Cit.)
There is no doubt that for Nash, the Bird Garden was an extremely special place, one of enchantment and almost mystical qualities. Like Kensington Gardens in his youth and Wittenham Clumps also, the Bird Garden was invested with a certain spirit of place or 'genius loci' to which Nash was compellingly drawn. Indeed, in The Field Before the Wood it is the spirit of the place that Nash is transcribing onto paper rather than the topographical features of the landscape. His aim it seems its visual poesy over literal accuracy. The pre-Raphaelite painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a great inspiration to Nash and his influence over the young artist can clearly be felt in this early work. Nash like Rossetti, also wrote poetry, and the main preoccupation in his poems, like his visual art at this time, was trees. In one he wrote, 'I will be your tree, your friend thro' good and evil.' (quoted in A.Causey, Paul Nash, Oxford, 1980, p.28). For Nash, trees were the silent witnesses to the world around, they were vital spirits, with souls. It is this incredibly intense connection with the natural world that Nash transposes into drawings such as the The Field Before the Wood, and accounts for the enormous sense of intimacy; a sense that is enhanced by the low viewpoint and dramatic shadows across the work. In his art, Nash himself seems to inhabit the landscape, life and soul, and through his visual expressions, the viewer is invited into Nash's magical and enchanting world. The bird soaring above the tree in the sky seems almost to be a metaphor for the artist's free spirit, a natural observer who is able to look at the mystical landscape without intruding. For Roger Cardinal, birds in Nash's art are a mystical signifier that a landscape has become for him a place of "magical complicity". Like the pre-Raphaelites, Nash developed in his work a type of visual code whereby certain elements became symbolic for his inner feelings.
The Field Before the Wood demonstrates the exquisite ability of Nash as an artist to inscribe human emotions and sensitivities into the landscape. While the human figure is absent from Nash's landscape, the works themselves are nevertheless 'saturated with human presence and meaning' (R.Cardinal, Op.Cit., p.7). It is this aspect that connects all of Nash's Art and demonstrates clearly the importance of the present work and the Bird Garden in Nash's oeuvre as the place 'where it all began'.