Paul Nash and the Blue Pool
Pennie Denton recalls the visits of 'reluctant surrealist' painter Paul Nash to Dorset
Published in May ’13
The visitors’ book from Furzebrook House, near Wareham, records that Paul Nash stayed there from 17 to 24 September 1937. Seven-year-old Tom Barnard junior was told that the famous artist needed to sleep with seven pillows, because of his asthma. In the morning he crept to the door dividing the nursery wing from his parents’ quarters and peeped through, hoping, in vain as it turned out, that the visitor’s bedroom door might be open and he might catch a glimpse of Mr Nash on his seven pillows.
Tom does not know how Paul Nash first got to know his parents, Tom and Gillian Barnard, but on 9 March 1935, a few days after the Barnards had moved into Furzebrook House, Paul and his wife, Margaret, were brought to tea by a Mr West, who may have had a part in the negotiations to buy the house. Just why these visitors were invited when the family were in the process of moving in is unclear but perhaps Nash, who was then living in Swanage and busy researching his Shell Guide to Dorset, was anxious to see the Blue Pool, a beauty spot on the Furzebrook estate often sought out by artists.
The Barnards had lived for many years in South Africa where Tom Barnard was Director of the School of African Life and Languages at Cape Town University. In 1934 the family returned to England and began to look for somewhere to live. Furzebrook House seemed attractive, with its 200 acres of land including a large garden, heathland, woodland, eight cottages and a small farm. They decided to buy it but as the house had not been lived in for some time, it needed a good deal of work before they could move in.
The Furzebrook estate had been owned and managed by Leonard Gaskell Pike, the last of the generations of Pikes who had mined the land for ball clay. Joseph Pike, a clay merchant from Devon, had started mining in the area in 1760 and in 1762 his son, William, drew up a contract with Josiah Wedgwood for 1100 tons of clay a year. In 1866 the Pikes opened a railway line from Furzebrook to Ridge Wharf and a steam train replaced the donkeys and carts that had transported the clay across the heath. From Ridge, barges took the clay to Poole for onward shipment to the Mersey ports, to Bristol and, by canal, to Staffordshire.
When the Barnards bought the estate, some of the clay workings had been filled in but several large ponds, including the famous Blue Pool, remained. The Blue Pool had originally been dug in the mid-19th century but was already disused when Augustus John and his friends came to paint there in 1910. The pool’s main attraction was its startling turquoise water, which was caused by the diffraction of light from minute clay particles in the lake. People were turning up at all times and without permission to gaze in wonder at the pool and Tom Barnard hit on the idea of turning the lake and its surroundings into a visitor attraction. He fenced in about 25 acres around the pool, turned one of his fields into a car park, built an attractive teahouse and charged an entrance fee. Gillian Barnard laid the first brick on 15 April 1935 and on 8 June there was a ceremonial opening attended by special guests Mr and Mrs Archibald Russell of Swanage and their friend, the artist Paul Nash. So Nash was involved in the very beginning of this enterprise.
After his September 1937 visit to Furzebrook House, Nash wrote to a mutual friend, Cecily Grey, that the Barnards ‘are steadily making a fat living out of The Blue Pool. I made a drawing of it and we are planning to produce a sort of guide to the pool.’ As well as making drawings, Nash took several photographs. One shows a cliff pock-marked by nesting sand martins. This mound has completely disappeared, worn away by erosion, and what remains is covered in vegetation. A second photograph shows a more conventional view of the Blue Pool. Sadly, no guide was published.
During this same 1937 holiday, Gillian Barnard drove Nash to Creech Folly and Kimmeridge, where he made preliminary sketches for a poster in the Shell ‘Follies’ series. He sent a copy of one of his photographs of the Creech folly to the Barnards inscribed ‘with love to Gillian and Tom’. But it was his design based on the Clavell Tower at Kimmeridge which was eventually used as a poster by Shell.
Nash also found time to do a quick watercolour sketch of the garden at Furzebrook House. He gave this previously unknown little painting to the Barnards as a thank-you gift and it has survived in the family archive. In blue crayon Nash wrote the words ‘for Tom and Gillian souvenir from Paul’. It seems in every way to have been a memorable and productive visit.
These are not the only treasures relating to Paul Nash found by the Barnard’s son amongst the family records. When Lance Sieveking drove Paul and Margaret around Dorset in September 1943, giving them a much-needed break from the horror and tedium of war, they visited Furzebrook House. One year later, Nash wrote a fascinating, long letter to ‘Lovely Gillian’ Barnard. It is an important letter because it sheds new light on Nash’s working methods and use of objects as significant elements or symbols in his paintings. It is almost as if he was using this rare wartime trip to Dorset to seek out images that might express the feelings that had been aroused by his experience of war and his own ill health. He seemed to be at the same time depressed by the idea of death and excited by images of flight and beauty.
‘Lovely Gillian’, he wrote, ‘do you remember the great white magnolia flower you gave me almost a year ago & I took away to draw? It was a beautiful affair with the most intoxicating perfume which billowed even into my bedroom from the landing in the Antelope or wherever we stayed that night in Dorchester. I just had time to make a note of its main forms & make a note of its colours then I had to give it to the chambermaid, who was carried away with emotion & took a great sniff of it which of course practically doped her for the day. For months the drawing remained just another study yet I felt quite certain it had a more important destiny. Then just recently I arrived at my ‘aerial flowers’ series. I don’t remember quite why or how – anyhow the magnolia became air borne & it took to the element as a duck to water. …Well, I thought you might like the photograph & if you like the picture, feel you helped to make it or indeed caused it.’
Nash inscribed the photograph of the painting, ‘Flight of the Magnolia watercolour 1944 for Gillian from Paul’. Nash found many women attractive and it may not be fanciful to suggest that this painting is also about love inspired by the memory of the beauty and scent of the magnolia which ‘Lovely Gillian’ had given him in September 1943. The huge, soft creamy-pink magnolia billowing across the sky seems welcoming and calming, an image of femininity and tranquillity but also potentially threatening. It is also an image of death: Nash knew that he did not have long to live when he painted this strange, symbolic picture.
Paul Nash’s last two years were spent at home in Oxford with periodic visits to the Acland Nursing home. He was often depressed and suicide sometimes seemed the best way to get away from the debilitating asthma attacks which left him too weak to stand or walk. The second part of his letter to Gillian was a cry for help; could she possibly, he asked, find somewhere in Dorset where he and Margaret might have a short holiday as ‘The only break we have had through the war was that Heaven-sent tour last year with Lance. Goodbye dear Gillian, do your best for your devoted Paul.’
The war and Paul’s deteriorating health delayed their holiday and it was the summer of 1946 before they were able to come to Dorset again. They stayed at a hotel in Boscombe and drove out daily to revisit their favourite places. On 10 June they came to Furzebrook to see Tom Barnard, who had recently returned from the war, and Gillian. The magnolia, which had been flowering so spectacularly in September 1943, was not in flower but Nash had recorded its beauty and, as he saw it, potential for soaring flight across a vast, lonely sky. Nash died peacefully in the night following this visit.
• Dorset Life would like to thank Tom Barnard for sharing his discoveries about Paul Nash’s visits to his parents between 1935 and 1946 and the photographs, paintings and letters relating to those visits.
Purbeck Art Weeks Festival
Pennie Denton is giving an illustrated talk called ‘The Reluctant Surrealists: Paul Nash and Eileen Agar’ on Wednesday 5 June at 7.00 at Harman’s Cross Village Hall. Tel 01929 439442, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.purbeckartweeks.co.uk for further information.