What an extraordinary place the Slade School of Fine Art must have been on the eve of the Great War. There survives a memorable photograph of staff and students on their annual school picnic in 1912. Captured in that image is one of the most brilliant cohorts produced by any British school of art: Dora Carrington, Christopher Nevinson, Mark Gertler; David Bomberg and Isaac Rosenberg, and the venerable Henry Tonks; a youthful Stanley Spencer is perched elf-like at the edge of the group. Others in that formidable cohort were the young Nash brothers, Paul and John, with William Roberts and Edward Wadsworth. Rivals, friends and lovers, this was a quite brilliant gathering of young talent, every one of them to be sorely tested by the war that loomed over the European horizon.
Regarded as one of the lesser talents at the Slade, Nevinson had never secured the approval of Henry Tonks and he left the school condemned by the professor as rather average. Paul Nash remembered Nevinson as "the school bully, in a playful sort of way, on a mental, rather than a physical, plane" who was renowned for his withering sarcasm and unbounded self-confidence. Unusually for someone who nursed grievances for decades, Nevinson appears not to have held a grudge against the Slade: after all, it had turned him towards serious painting, while giving him a licence to indulge in "high-spirited and exhausting diversion". His wonderfully inaccurate but vivid memoir – aptly entitled Paint and Prejudice – is strewn with tales of wild studio parties and misguided pranks.
No less colourful in his own way, Paul Nash cut a dashing figure at the Slade, his imposing presence augmented by a fastidious dress sense. On occasion he appeared in silk hat, snuff-coloured trousers, a black jacket and white spats sporting a silver-headed malacca cane, causing Nevinson – barbed as ever – to ask out loudly if he were "an engineer", a jibe that caused great hilarity, to all but young Paul. Lacking Nevinson's bombastic embrace of Modernist painting and the Futurist's call to arms, Nash settled happily into his studio to create rather dull, even tepid, watercolours of fluffy elms and bucolic scenery.
When war broke, 25-year-old Nevinson could not wait to enlist. Chronic rheumatism prevented him from joining the army but, prompted by his father, he took a course in motor engineering and joined a Friends' Ambulance Unit. Within hours of donning uniform he found himself in Dunkirk working in a shed nicknamed 'The Shambles', teeming with dead, wounded and dying from the routed French Army. "In five minutes," wrote the stunned painter, "I was nurse, water-carrier, stretcher-bearer, driver, and interpreter." Nevinson later made much of his time as an ambulance driver, but in reality he managed only one week behind the wheel, proving unable to steer the unwieldy vehicles and manage the gearing. Nevertheless, he experienced war at its very grimmest: one of the first British artists to do so.
Emboldened by this grisly induction to the fighting, Nevinson renewed his relationship with the press, cultivating an impression that the work of an ambulance driver was not only hazardous, but also "exciting, dynamic and mobile" as befitted the sole English Futurist. Often front-page news in the press, his war paintings were enthusiastically greeted by critics and the public alike. He was especially adept at balancing figuration with a veneer of Modernist abstraction, combining Impressionistic painterliness with a simple geometric design, using overlapping wedges of red, blue, copper and silver steel to suggest both the unstoppable momentum of a column on the march as well as the "hurried and harassed melancholy" of military service. It was an object lesson in how to make Modernism palatable.
Lauded by critics and generals alike, esteemed by the cognoscenti and never far from the public eye, it was inevitable that Nevinson would be commissioned as an official war artist, and just as inevitable that he would maintain his image of the enfant terrible of British art.
Arriving in France as an official war artist in July 1917 he was enthralled by the scale and complexity of the static war machine. His energy was boundless – he toured the battle zones, flew over the enemy line on a reconnaissance flight, visited artillery batteries, took a somewhat hazardous balloon ascent, and, on one memorable occasion, gave the slip to his military minder to make an unauthorised visit to Ypres on the eve of the Passchendaele offensive. This rash venture brought his employment to a rather abrupt end and added to his self-embroidered reputation for wanton recklessness. However, his drawings, prints and paintings of aerial combat – a fine example of which is offered in Bonhams 20th Century British Sale – broke new frontiers of representation, depicting the land from above, planes locked in combat, swooping down with filmic intensity. Nevinson proved singularly able to capture the war's dreadful nihilism in uncomplicated pictorial form, reaching out to huge audiences. As The Observer art critic asserted, "He stands alone, in England, as the painter of modern war".
By contrast, Paul Nash was a more reluctant warrior. Having finished at the Slade, he was gaining a modest reputation as a painter of neo-Romantic nocturnes and visionary landscapes, and was nurturing a network of patrons when war broke out. After months of delay, he found himself a subaltern in the Hampshire Regiment en route to the Western Front by mid-1917. However, only eight weeks after he first set foot in France he was on his way back to Blighty, having fractured a rib in a fall.
For someone so familiar with the night sky and the aesthetic powers of the stars and moon, Nash had stumbled in the dark into a deep trench while watching an artillery barrage. Convalescing back home, Nash later learned the terrible news that most of his fellow officers had been killed in an attack on Hill 60.
Recovering in England gave him the opportunity to work up some sketches he had made at the Front. From being a draughtsman of rather fey, dreamy landscapes, his work took the first of several radical turns. Embracing the diagonal energy and limited palette of the Vorticists, he mounted a show of drawings at the Goupil Gallery in London that marked a radical shift in his style. Gone were the fuzzy elms, to be replaced by splintered woods and panoramic views of the hollowed salient. Like Nevinson (whose work Nash admired and purchased, and from whom he took lessons in printmaking), his imagination was enflamed by the dystopia of the Western Front and his work took on "an actuality, an immediacy, that brought to life everything about the Front which people had read and heard, but had found themselves quite unable to visualise".
Returning as an official war artist, Nash was both spellbound and aghast at the sight of splintered copses and dismembered trees, seeing in their shattered limbs an equivalent for the human carnage that lay all around. In his war work the trees remain inert and gaunt, failing to respond to the shafts of sunlight; their branches dangle lifelessly "like melancholy tresses of hair", mourning the death of the world and its values that Nash held so dear.
Bearing witness to the chaos, the abject dereliction and danger, Nash translated the trauma of Passchendaele into austere drawings and biting prose. He now had something to say. His message was unsparing; his descriptions in his autobiography are among the most vivid to come out of the entire war: "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. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting for 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."
This well-honed anger was converted into a suite of taut drawings, each one scooped out of the muddy places, barren ridgelines, and filthy puddles of the salient. In works such as Rain, Lake Zillebeke or After the Battle (both 1918) Nash created a new calligraphy of war; his drawings are scored and scratched with uncompromising diagonals, the incessant rain is engraved in stabbing lines across the surface, the ashen wastes of the battlefield are dense with impenetrable strokes of his pen. Nothing daunted him: neither the weird sight of a tree trunk adorned in barbed wire nor a close-up of driving raindrops falling heavily into the convulsed earth.
Nash was to emerge from the war as by far the most important and original young British painter of the period, leaving a rather more traumatised Nevinson in his wake. The war had accelerated Nash's development as a painter, fusing his "early pastoral vision with the forces of modernity" and fuelling his imagination. At the age of 30 he returned to the Old World, crammed with the vivid impressions of war and peace, his innocence and idealism strained, if not shattered. "Ahead," he wrote ominously, lay the "struggles of a war artist without a war."
Professor Paul Gough is author of A Terrible Beauty, an extensive study of British art of the Great War.