The landscape painter and augmenter, Paul Nash, had a momentary, glimpsed relationship with the Wiltshire town of Avebury. The landscape, which brims with a sense of ancientness and magic, evidently enraptured the painter for a brief spell of creative yield not simply in painting but in photography as a sideline as well. Caught in the trace images and memories of its Neolithic stone circles, its village’s self-containment, and the feeling of being surrounded by many other ancient burial forms, Nash channeled these elements in the most dialectic of fashions; an old world reaching out for a fresh conversation. This is uncannily present in a handful of his paintings, including some of his most respected abstract landscape work but, since Tate uploaded scans of his negative black and white photography onto their website over recent years, the effect of the place upon the artist seems to have manifested most viscerally and in the most earnest of ways in the photographic medium.
Nash visited the village for a holiday in 1933 from where he was staying in nearby Marlborough. The time of the visit was a warm and summery July, evident in the photos’ sharp contrasts and grain. Clearly being enamoured with the feel of the main stone circle, Nash took a number of shots which may have been designed for later use as references for such work as Druid Landscape painted the following year in 1934. Yet the pictures from this particular trip are in themselves a work of intriguing character, being of documentation that taps into Nash’s newly found “…sensitiveness to magic and the sinister beauty of monsters.”[i]. The place has been known to open such gateways for many artists including the vastly different practices of John Piper and Derek Jarman. In these first few photographs, Nash consistently highlights one singular stone at a time, as if suggesting that such an object may be of some kernel character, hiding obligatory evidence of its own sentience.
Each photo is enchanted with its own singular stone, the only exception being that of a double-exposed example which instead opens up more historical and temporal questions about the area. These stones are now referred to as “personages” within the Tate descriptions, which belies the elements that Nash clearly and exuberantly perceived; a sense of craggy consciousness. He brings out each stone’s mood with each individual standing triumphant as its edge often breaks the horizon line of their respective photos. Nash may have taken these photos with some haste, but there’s a keenness and patience to them born undoubtedly from the photographers’ reaction to the stones themselves. When the double-exposure occurs, the landscape is itself inverted, with the sky and ground to the right of the photo jumbling together in serendipic fashion. The other elements of the landscape are then kaleidoscopically shot through a texture of rock, conveying the idea that the place itself is built in awe and respect for the stones rather than the other-way around.
Nash also documents the circle, perhaps accidently, before the full restoration of the land had been completed; a development that he was undoubtedly apprehensive about. At the fringes of the photos can be seen scruffy tufts of unkempt grass, blowing gently in the breeze of a placid summer’s day. There are few fences and little in the way of barriers with the only real manmade objects present being the string of wire poles bobbing along in the distant background. The landscape is depopulated, perhaps not something that is a creative decision, but it lends a nervous disposition to the place and the photos. There’s every chance that the stones may simply stand up and walk off when Nash’s back turns momentarily upon them. This oddness of stone character is captured especially well in the double-exposed shot as the different instances clash together and acknowledge evidence of the stones’ constancy; they will be here after the photographer has gone, himself becoming a hauntological object unseen but implied within the photos.
More paintings were produced of the area by Nash, most notably Landscape Of The Megaliths in 1934 and Equivalents Of The Megaliths in 1935, but he would not return to the site for creative work again until 1942. The era is worth noting when comparing the two sets of photos. Gone is the playfulness of the pre-war photography, replaced instead by a more rushed, more worried handful of snaps that give a great sense of haste in their production. Instead of focussing more upon single stones and enjoying every miniature bluff on their rock-faces, the photos are taken aback, often of more than one rock and very evidently taken quickly from the roadside. The fences are more prevalent, the area now being noted and mapped by the tarmac curvature surrounding it. Some of the photos are evidently blurred and rushed, two even containing the car in which Nash clearly drove there in; its door ajar, evidence of the brevity of their stop, next to a huge rock lying in eerie wait.
The two photo sets show a stark contrast in spite of being of the same place and by the same photographer. Whilst one is idyllic, magical, warm, and vibrant with intrigue, the other is routine, unexplorative, almost depressed and shaded by melancholy in comparison. The differences can be seen as evidence of the change in mentality for the artist, only a mere four years before his own death from heart failure. The war had been raging for enough time to displace the optimistic excitement at finding a local magic still alive in an English country field which perhaps explains the almost uncaring nature of the second set of photos, taken at barely a walking’s distance from the car, ready in potential celerity, if an event arises, for a swift exit from the village. The magic sadly now not being strong enough to counter the reality of a world in turmoil; an enclave on the periphery of reality whose magic now turns to malediction.
standing in a field copse,
Ages from an age away,
Cast shadows on the ground,
Shapes on the meadow’s grass.
A giant’s fingers breaking the earth.
Pastures morph, the textured grain,
Stones perch always, always here,
They cry back, aghast,
a visitor, snaking and fencing off their menhir orchard.
A camera clicking yet may miss,
that rock is really chrysalis,
and when the sad man turns back,
To a parked car on the gentle verge,
Who knows what may hatch,
A conspiracy of rock.
The stones gaze on,
[i] Quoted from Ruth Clarke in Paul Nash: Landscape And The Life Of Objects (2013) by Andrew Causey.