My favourite painting: Robert Macfarlane

'Nash’s painting thrillingly chills me'

Totes Meer, 1940–1, by Paul Nash (1889–1946), 40in by 60in, Tate Collection. 

Robert Macfarlane says:
‘A half moon, a grey-blue sky, the distant hint of a ridge and a shimmering silver sea of twisted fuselage and shot-up wing. Nash’s painting thrillingly chills me and, whenever I see it, my eye seeks out the sinister gliding back of that white owl in the top right corner, another kind of aerial hunter out for its prey. Totes Meer takes the English pastoral and torques it, trashes it. Along with Ravilious’s war paintings, Nash’s vision has shaped my own writing about the English landscape, helping me to see conflict as a condition of place, terrain as a function of wreckage and the natural as inextricable from the anthropic.’

Robert Macfarlane is the author of a number of books about landscape and the imagination, including The Wild Places, The Old Ways and, most recently, Landmarks. He is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. 

John McEwen comments on Totes Meer:

In the First World War, Paul Nash saw action on the Western Front as an officer before he was appointed an official war artist. In the Second World War, he was re-appointed to work on the Home Front. In 1941, he wrote to the Ministry of Information: ‘I should like [my official war] pictures to be used directly or indirectly as propaganda.’

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Nash lived in Oxford, where Morris Motors had been partially assigned to aircraft production. Wrecked British and German planes were brought for recycling to the Metal Produce Recovery Unit at Cowley, a 100-acre field used as a dump. ‘The thing looked to me suddenly like a great inundating sea,’ the artist wrote. ‘You might feel—under certain influence—a moonlight night for instance—this is a vast tide moving across the field, the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain.’ In keeping with its propagandist purpose, the resulting picture showed only German planes and he gave it a German title, Totes Meer (‘dead sea’), but it transcends propaganda and, therefore, time. He had provided a First World War masterpiece with his desolate Menin Road. Totes Meer is its Second World War equivalent.

The Imperial War Museum has a painting by Frances MacDonald of the Cowley dump. The wreckage is placed in the landscape. The season is suitably wintry and it has greater documentary interest, but it lacks Nash’s ‘very special talent for rendering certain poetical aspects… no other artist could’, as the art critic Roger Fry wrote to him in 1917.

The exhibition ‘Paul Nash’ will open at Tate Britain on October 26, 2016.

** Read every “My Favourite Painting’ in the series