Dora Carrington: a difficult virus to get out of your system

Saturday 23 October 1999 23:00

First Friends by Ronald Blythe (Viking £25)

First Friends by Ronald Blythe (Viking £25)

The artist brothers Paul and John Nash painted their most important canvases as official artists of the Great War in a rented seed shed on common land at Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire in the spring of 1918. This shed had last been used by Belgian refugees for drying crops of belladonna and henbane, and it was thus in a drug-laden atmosphere, to the accompaniment of the music of Scarlatti, Schubert and Bach bashed out by their wives on a piano, that some of the greatest artistic records of the war, like John's scene from the Battle of Cambrai, Over the Top: 1st Artists' Rifles at Marcoing, were produced.

Both men had seen action on the Western Front, Paul as a subaltern in the Hampshires, John in the Artists' Rifles, an officer training unit which attracted those with artistic pretensions, but the Ministry of Information nonetheless insisted on providing them with all the accoutrements of trench life - barbed wire, duck boards, gun chains - to "refresh" their memories.

Think of posterity's image of the Western Front and it may be a grainy black and white film or photographic shot that comes to mind; or, just as likely, it will be one of Paul Nash's tortured and desolate battlescapes: shell-ploughed fields, eerily illuminated by the sudden shaft of light sent up by a flare or shell burst. In later years, neither brother would cling to their respective wartime pasts, not least because commercially they couldn't afford to do so. Both would go on to find themselves in new and challenging artistic spheres, Paul as a water-colourist expressing his great individuality through the depiction of monoliths and monster trees, and John as an "artist plantsman", increasingly drawn by his love of plant life and "the lie of the land".

The early lives and war experiences of the Nashes represent the most important and interesting portion of Ronald Blythe's book, though three other characters make up the "friends" of the title: Paul's wife Bunty (full name Margaret Theodosia Odeh), Christine Kühlenthal, whom John eventually married, and Dora Carrington in her pre-Strachey days, who in the past 30 years has, of course, become an artist-celebrity in her own right through her Bloomsbury associations. Carrington's letters were often accompanied by witty pen-and-ink illustrations, and some of these are printed here to the great enhancement of the text.

Carrington, the Nashes, and Christine Kühlenthal met as students at the Slade School of Painting, Drawing and Sculpture in the years immediately before the outbreak of the First World War (though John Nash was never a student at the Slade in the formal sense, having been advised by Paul against art schools). They were all in their late teens or early 20s, and only Christine would fail to fulfil her artistic promise after she became afflicted with glaucoma. After John Nash's death in 1977 (Paul had died three decades earlier), Ronald Blythe, who had been a close friend of John and Christine Nash and part of the close-knit artists' circle living on the Suffolk-Essex borders (which included Edward Bawden, Cedric Morris, Lett-Halnes and many others), discovered a tin trunk full of letters in the brick bread-oven at the Nashes' farmhouse home. These were the letters which the four Slade friends had written to each other from about 1912 throughout the 1920s, until they petered out shortly before Carrington's suicide in 1932. It is this correspondence which forms the narrative thread of First Friends.

The early immature letters are, as one would expect, full of false posturing and emotional overstatement. The manifestos of artistic purpose don't tell us very much that is interesting, and the pre-war frolics and house parties have a forgettable quality about them. Carrington's letters are supposedly famous for their brilliant and amusing vignettes, in which case this early batch will do little for her reputation. The unrequited love affair that meanders throughout the book is that of John Nash's love for Carrington, which he never quite manages to exorcise from his system. Ralph Partridge's remark about his own Carrington-induced plight - "She was an obsession to me - once she got into anybody's blood she was ineradicable" - just about sums it up, and the picture one gets of Carrington, leading men on in the interests of maintaining her virginal status, is not a particularly attractive one. As she wrote in 1919 to a disappointed Mark Gertler, she realised "what a beastly ungenerous nature I had created inside my frame ... my letters to you are like woodcuts, limited in their technique, and certain elements, as colour, will never be able to be shown".

The Nashes' letters from the Front were powerfully evocative. For Paul Nash especially, the experience of being a war artist required a subtle blend of lip-service to the demands of officialdom combined with the expression of an artistic freedom inspired by the work of the modernist avant garde. Paul's works are among the most powerful indictments of the war because of his insistence that he had a message to deliver: he was one of the most didactic of the great war artists in relentlessly ramming home an anti-war statement. His brilliant letters to his wife in the spring of 1917 are matchless on the "Ridiculous and mad incongruity" of War and Nature: "Flowers bloom everywhere and we have just come up to the trenches for the first time and where I sit now ... the place is just joyous, the dandelions are bright gold over the parapet and nearby a lilac bush is breaking into bloom; in a wood passed through on our way up, a place with an evil name, pitted and packed with shells, the trees torn to shreds, often reeking with poison gas - a most desolate ruinous place two months back, today it was a vivid green; the most broken trees even had sprouted somewhere and in the midst, from the depths of the wood's bruised heart poured out the throbbing song of a nightingale."

Ronald Blythe's delightful book wears its charm lightly. Originally published in a limited edition by the Fleece Press, it has now been given a wider circulation by Viking who is to be congratulated on the qualities of high production and beautiful illustration which are all too rare today.

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