Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ghosts and Quincunxes

 Frontispiece to 'Urn-Burial' by Paul Nash

In the deep discovery of the Subterranean world, 
a shallow part would satisfy some enquirers.

 It’s testimony to Sir Thomas Browne’s  own antiquity as well as his originality that throughout the centuries, thinkers, writers, artists and composers have responded to his art and thought, including the English artist Paul Nash (1899 -1946). Paul Nash was one of the leading English artists during the first half of the twentieth century. He was recruited as an official war artist during the 1920’s and promoted modernism in Britain as well as the avant-garde styles of surrealism and abstraction. In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and the art critic Herbert Read. 

When  in 1932 Nash was invited to illustrate a book of his own choice he unhesitatingly chose Thomas Browne’s Discourses 'Urn-Burial' and  'The Garden of Cyrus', providing the publisher with no less than 30 illustrations to accompany Browne’s text.  Titles included among Nash's thirty designs include - 'Tokens',  'Buried Urn', 'Funeral Pyre', 'Mansions of the Dead', 'Ghosts' and 'Sorrows'.

In his essay ‘Browne and Paul Nash : The Genesis of Form’ Philip Brocklebank notes that Nash studied Browne’s text carefully and had an exact command of it. According to Brocklebank, Nash's art

‘encourages a readers scattered perceptions to coalesce into new orders; and he contrives to create in colortype and watercolour  a visual equivalent to the prolific allusiveness and the aphoristic immediacies of Browne’s style’.

Brocklebank also noted that Nash responded sympathetically to the themes of death and human mortality in ‘Urn-Burial',  indeed both Browne and Nash witnessed the slaughter and horror of war in their life-time. Browne's Discourse 'Urn-Burial' itself has been described as a threnody to the waste of human life during the English civil war.

'When the Funeral Pyre was out, and the last valediction over,
men took a lasting adieu of their interred friends'. 

 'the souls of Penelope's Paramours conducted by Mercury chirped like bats and those which followed Hercule's made a noise but like a flock of birds'.

Nash was equally sympathetic to  the themes of optics, the geometry of nature and Browne's perspicacious observations upon sundry subjects in 'The Garden of Cyrus'. Illustration titles include 'Vegetable Creation', 'Poisonous Plantations' and the running title sub-sections of the Discourse 'The Quincunx naturally considered', 'The Quincunx artificially considered',  and 'The Quincunx mystically considered'. 

A like ordination there is in the favaginous Sockets, and Lozenge seeds of the noble flower of the Sunne.

Nor is it to be overlooked how Orus, the Hieroglyphick of the world is described in a Network covering from the shoulder to the foot.

And beside this kind of work in Retiarie and hanging textures, in embroideries, and eminent needle-works; the like is obvious unto every eye in glass-windows. Not only in Glassie contrivances, but also in Lattice and Stone-work...

Book consulted -

Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne, The Ann Arbor Tercentenary Lectures and Essays. edited by C.A.Patrides pub. University of Missouri  Press 1982


teegee said...

Those are quite interesting illustrations, attentive, as you say, to Browne's own eye and mind. And I had no idea that the artist was associated with Moore and Hepworth and their friends. Generationally, Nash is of the same cohort as Virginia Woolf, with whose remarks on Browne my own correspondence with you and enjoyment of your blog began.

Hydriotaphia said...

That's right Teegee, almost a year to the day ! And in fact Paul Nash was a also a friend of John Carter, editor of the 1958 tercentennial edition of Urn and Cyrus, that you possess. It's an edition of the 2 Discourses which has yet to be repeated in over 50 years now. Shameful publishers continue to dissect Browne's diptych; if they discerned the Greek root of the word 'Thomas' they would know better !