“I now recall / the paths we scored / across the Purbeck moon” (Purbeck Moon, The Cabinet of Living Cinema).
Through the Spring of 2016 we begin writing ballads to tell the tale of Paul Nash and fellow surrealist Eileen Agar’s love affair with each other and with the Purbeck landscape, using voice and traditional folk and orchestral instruments. In tandem we begin filming a “voyage” along the sea-cliffs of Purbeck, capturing the hidden limestone coves, tinted purple by seawater, the forests of seaweed and found objects or’objets trouves’ including a rusting old engine tucked into a cliff crevasse, some of which we will ultimately incorporate into the live performance. This is the part of the Jurassic Coast – from Swanage to Kimmeridge – which ushered in a new era of Nash’s art. His and Eileen’s affair was intense and in the end Nash was left forlorn, but ultimately it was an inspirational encounter, setting him on the path to his very English version of Surrealism.
Nash’s fascination with the natural world was always there, but it was after trips to the megalithic ruins of Southern England that he first began to paint the ancient world as alive and enveloped within the dream-world of surrealism. Less interested in the past as past, it was the past as present that beguiled Nash.
In Purbeck, we find these landscapes, both ancient, geological, elemental, curved, carved and crashed by wave, quarried into cubist caves by years of industry. These are “objet trouve” landscapes – discarded objects of accidental rather than ‘deliberate’ beauty.
Nash’s extensive photographs of ‘objets trouves’ – many found on beach-combing trips with Eileen – became the foundations for pieces such as ‘Event on the Down’ and ‘Landscape from a Dream’, a painting pronounced by Andre Breton as a truly great Surrealist work. But his English take on the art-form is found within the more mythical, Blakean world he integrates into his paintings – siren-snakes coiling from fossil nests above Kimmeridge Bay, a hawk on a Purbeck cliff presiding over a series of balls like planets of hay – strange yet resonant of the stone beasts found in English churches. These mythical elements combine with contorted images of megalithic relics – stone circles and barrows – to create an ancient and modern aesthetic that echoes the Jurassic, manufactured world of Purbeck.
Nash died in a guest-house in Boscombe on the 11th July, 1946, having spent his last ten days revisiting the places of Dorset that had inspired his surrealism: the dream-like landscapes and inanimate objects he had found in and around Swanage earlier in his life, what he would call, shortly before his death, his “kingdom”.
In a Cabinet Voyage conducted to coincide with the 70th anniversary of his passing, we collect video footage of the half-mechanised, half-prehistoric world of the Purbeck cliffs from caves accessible only by sea. From the coast path, Dorset photographer Ellie Maguire captures the bent frames of trees which Nash cites as having particular affinity with.
Objects found on explorations of Purbeck are collected by artist and foley musician Robert Parkinson to create soundscapes ushering in this secret world of colour and unearthly sound. The graphic novel animation is created by Tom Brown animator (Magnetic Foragers) and illustrator James Edwards (http://www.jamesedwardsillustration.co.uk), inspired by Nash’s art.
Completing the voyage are excerpts from work by Japanese animator Nozomi Hokoshawa and American avant-garde filmmaker, Maya Deren, integrated into the piece to explore the artistic and philosophical ideas shaped by Nash’s encounter with the Purbeck landscape.
Amongst the visual experiments conducted with Tom Brown arise a part of the performance in which the found objects are buried in water, as if to trigger memories from the water of the intense feelings Nash had for his lover. This sense of objects containing memories is something that fascinated Edwardian spiritualists, including Conan Doyle in his search for contact with his deceased son.
The conclusion of the piece finds Nash in the guesthouse of his final days, close to where Dorset members of the Cabinet spent their youth – here and in Purbeck beloved by Nash – recalling the paths him and Eileen scored across Purbeck: she, the siren washed up on his beach, both muse but also someone he could ultimately, never contain or possess.