Great British Art: The Battle of Britain by Paul Nash

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Paul Nash’s description of the painting, written for the War Artist’s Advisory Committee: ‘The painting is an attempt to give the sense of an aerial battle in operation over a wide area and thus summarizes England’s great aerial victory over Germany. The scene includes certain elements constant during the Battle of Britain – the river winding from the town and across parched country, down to the sea; beyond, the shores of the Continent, above, the mounting cumulus concentrating at sunset after a hot brilliant day; across the spaces of sky, trails of airplanes, smoke tracks of dead or damaged machines falling, floating clouds, parachutes, balloons. Against the approaching twilight new formations of Luftwaffe, threatening…’ The painting majestically reveals the possibilities of art engaged with history. Its ambition and the scale of the setting immediately impress; we look down on a huge swathe of the English Channel and France beyond.

Produced at the time of the battle, the painting encapsulates its scale and importance. However, this is not just an image of modern warfare, with its violence and destruction, or even an iconic victory; it is also a restatement of the value of art and the defeat of Nazism. Nash, a fierce critic of the way that fighting on the Western Front of the First World War had been conducted, was immediate and steadfast in his revulsion towards Nazi Germany and its culture. In the painting, defenses rise up as if out of the very landscape of England to meet the fascistic machines of war; the regimented patterns of the Luftwaffe are broken and defeated by Allied fighter planes, they form great flower-like shapes in the sky, before plummeting into the very earth that has defeated them. Richard Seddon, pupil of Nash, viewed this work at Nash’s Oxford studio. He advised Nash to include more black smoke trails and painted an example on the canvas. When the painting was exhibited in London, Seddon’s black trail was still visible on the canvas. Margaret Nash presented Seddon with a 19th-century lithograph of a storm in Paris which Nash adapted to form the composition of the Battle of Britain. Nash delivered the work to the Committee in October and it went on display at the National Gallery in January 1942.

The painting is an attempt to give the sense of an aerial battle in operation over a wide area and thus summarizes England’s great aerial victory over Germany. The scene includes certain elements constant during the Battle of Britain – the river winding from the town and across parched country, down to the sea; beyond, the shores of the Continent, above, the mounting cumulus concentrating at sunset after a hot brilliant day; across the spaces of sky, trails of airplanes, smoke tracks of dead or damaged machines falling, floating clouds, parachutes, balloons. Against the approaching twilight new formations of Luftwaffe, threatening.

Paul Nash was one of Britain’s best-known artists at the time of the Second World War. As a former official war artist he was a logical choice to fulfill the role again, particularly as a patriot who believed in utilizing fine art for propaganda. Battle of Britain demonstrates this aspect of Nash’s outlook. It presents an epitome of RAF Fighter Command’s successful struggle against the Luftwaffe in 1940. RAF fighters sweep along the English Channel to break up advancing Luftwaffe formations in a summer sky filled with vapor trails, parachutes, balloons and cloud. The painting is an imaginative summary of the event rather than a literal one; Nash favors symbolism and allegory over factual accuracy. The barrage balloons and aircraft seen from above are not in proportion to the shadowy suggestions of vulnerable cities below. Geographically the painting suggests the Thames estuary, with the Channel and France beyond, but again the emphasis is on imaginative visualization.

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Comments

  1. avatarNicholette Anand says

    Jonathan, I very much enjoy your website and daily FB posts. This one was particularly interesting, and I sent it to my Mum, who is a bit of a history buff as well as British. She responded with some extra information that might interest you:

    “The geography here in the description is not entirely correct. One is actually looking (imaginatively) from north to south along the river Ouze across Sussex and then to the coast of France. It was over this part of the country that the big Battle of Britain was fought. My mother and her family watched it…as did everyone in the south along the coast.

    Also, the author says that it looks as if defenses have emerged from the land. Actually there were a huge number of defenses along the coast and all over England that to this day people don’t know about them. Churchill was adamant that we would fight ‘them’ on our home land…in the ditches and fields, if they landed…and it was fully expected they would land.

    If you look along the Thames estuary you just look out across the North Sea.

    It is all very interesting and a long time ago.”

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