The Kingdom of Paul Nash – unlocking the fable…

It’s been a while since we toured Nash and it’s back on the road so I thought I’d write a few words about the fable that it is and what inspired it to be unpicked as one might an arcane painting or map i.e. what the hell is that about?!

The Kingdom of Paul Nash was inspired by letters given to the Tate by Eileen Agar which revealed an intense and short-lived affair she had with Paul Nash in 1930s Swanage which was not short-lived for him as it was truly profound and was in part his voyage into an English surrealism that would – with his Trench paintings – define his life’s work.

They gave each other gifts from the beaches and coves – painted shells and strange objects imbued with personalities. Through his encounters with the Purbeck coast and the wider megalithic world of the South of England, Nash could finally fuse together the Blakean animism he loved with the avant-garde – the surrealism of the continent- the stone circles, megaliths, serpentine hills of Maiden Castle, described by Thomas Hardy as a great cephalopod – all rearing up and transmogrophying within the de Chirico coves, hills and even beach town-scapes of Dorset. For him the Isle of Purbeck was alive- the fossils rising up as snakes, the seaweed bulbous and alien.

But Nash was also experiencing a form of rehabilitation. He had been treated for shell shock in 1921 after a week of collapsing unconscious, having witnessed with an artist’s eye the horrors of Passchendale in the drowning mud of 1917.

We started with their relationship and decided to explore how we might depict this encounter less as a conventional narrative and more as a surreal or magic realist fable. In this Nash is seen washing up on a magical island – Tempest like. A totemic bird – possibly a cormorant – ushers him on his journey and soon he discovers a quarry leading to a headland chapel based on St, Aldhelm’s Head. There he meets an incarnation of William Blake, proto-anarchic artist who guides him into a tunnel which will lead him back to his lost memories. The tunnel leads to a stone circle where resides a further reincarnation – that of Thomas Hardy – a soothsayer cartologist who knows where Nash can rekindle his repressed trauma. On the clifftop at Winspit, where a ship ran aground, he sees the full horror of his repressed memories, that of Passchendale, 1917. He plunges into the water and there meets the siren-like Agar, who ushers him back to land from the forests of kelp where she resides.

So that’s what it all means!

Kieron Chissik, July, 2019.

Mary Shelley’s Future Shocks (a living graphic novel inspired by Mary Shelley and Yuval Harari)

The Kingdom of Paul Nash (research and development, 2016)

“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 (, 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.

Cabinet Voyages: coastal exploration

Over 2013 and 2014, The Cabinet of Living Cinema have embarked on a series of routes that seek to rekindle the exploration of the remote, wild and “hidden” stretches of Britain’s West coast first pioneered by the early sea-cliff climbers of the 1900s. These stretches are not only places of unparalleled natural beauty and home to fantastical formations – caves, blow-holes and arches- but they are also muses for writers, artists, musicians and poets, places of ship-wreck and supernatural dwelling.

In the summer of 2013, the first Cabinet Voyage of this kind was conducted to explore the life and love of Paul Nash, the English surrealist painter, along a stretch of the Dorset coast that had been his inspiration for exploring the notion of the “found object”.