Paul Nash spent the entire year of 1931 preparing his illustrations for Thomas Browne’s beloved Urne Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus (1658). Its prominent themes of life, death and the afterlife and the universal abstract patterns of Nature chimed with Nash’s own research into Surrealism and abstraction.
His was ‘the voice of a strange preacher,’ Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘of a man filled with doubts and subtleties and suddenly swept away by surprising imaginations.’
No, not Paul Nash – doubtful, subtle, servant to his inner vision, yes, but too private for preaching: this is Thomas Browne, 17th century physician and philosopher and author of one of the great double bills of the English language, Urne Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus. In 1932 a new edition of Browne’s texts was published by Cassel & Co. with illustrations by Nash, printed and hand-coloured at the Curwen Press. Universally considered Nash’s finest illustrated work and one of the very great art books of the 20th century, Urne Buriall was a consummate meeting of minds: Browne, the writer’s writer, man of letters, whose excursionary prose enamoured the likes of Coleridge, Melville, Poe, Borges, and more recently W.G. Sebald; and Nash, on the cusp of a breakthrough, testing a wary approach toward the branching aesthetic trail ahead of him, one path leading to Surrealism, the other to abstraction. In Urne Buriall, a most English and antiquarian of texts, Nash found a surprising world of lucid dreaming and labyrinthine memory that would help guide his way to the Modern.
Born in London in 1605, Thomas Browne began his studies in Oxford before travelling across Europe and earning his doctorate in Leiden. Returning to England to practise medicine, he eventually settled, aged 32, in Norwich. On his return he had penned the first in a series of extraordinary texts that would win him international admirers even in his lifetime: Religio Medici, a deeply confessional musing from the doctor on the nature of his faith, scepticism, and spirituality. The Pseudodoxia Epidemica followed, an unwieldy, rambunctious dispelling of folklore and midwives’ tales (with the author’s own half-truths sprinkled in for good measure), but it was in 1658, on the occasion of the discovery of a store of some forty or fifty burial urns in a field near Great Walsingham, that Browne was moved to write his most quoted treatise.
Nash was already familiar with Browne’s writing when Oliver Simon, editor, publisher, printer and manager par excellence of artists’ expectations at Curwen Press, suggested that they ‘should produce one of the most lovely illustrated books in the history of British typography.’ They had met in 1919 and worked closely together over the next two decades, with Curwen printing several of Nash’s illustrated books. Quietly discerning, Simon took note of Nash’s exacting psychology early on in their relationship: ‘…his own way was in the end a realisation of his poetic vision, untrammelled by commercial expediency,’ he later wrote. ‘It was always an exciting and unpredictable adventure to work with him and sometimes exhausting for he was wonderfully particular.’
Aware of the gravity of the task he had taken on, and anxious that it should be done right, Nash began work on his illustrations in 1931 at a challenging moment in his career. 1930 had ushered in a period of economic depression: in that year alone he had taken home less than half what he had earned in sales from a single exhibition in 1928. To add to his unsurety, a creative crisis seemed to be looming: ‘I want to expand yet do not see my way’ he had written to his wife, Margaret, in 1928: ‘a result of unenterprise, of a subconscious playing for safety. I would be released from that.’
Three years later, with his paintings now selling poorly, Urne Buriall offered a release in more ways than one: a £200 advance, with the promise of royalties on the planned edition of 215 copies, and (more importantly) an opportunity to completely revaluate in what direction his art was heading. He brought to his reading of the text new revelations ripe for experiment: the radical landscape composition he had admired in recent paintings by de Chirico and Magritte and, while holidaying in France with a young Edward Burra, exposure to the latest Surrealist work by Ernst and Masson. There, at the harbour in Toulon, he had drawn boats in the water sketching ‘valiantly from my window every day, baffled and desperate in my ignorance, tangled up in unsuitable rigging, bewildered yet fascinated by the strange architecture of things.’ That last phrase was to serve him well when it came to Browne. He began to think and write intently about the ‘unreal worlds’ of his dreams and, in the wake of the deaths of Margaret’s parents and his father’s own, to contemplate the themes of death, life, death in life, in the form of grief, and life in death and the immortal soul.
These, coincidentally, were the preoccupations of Thomas Browne as he opined on the discovery at Walsingham of pots containing bones, teeth, jaws, boxes, ‘combs handsomely wrought’, ‘brazen nippers’ and instruments of opal. The anonymity of this upturned wealth (Browne assumed the urns were Roman, but in fact they were Saxon) prompted a discourse on burial customs through the ages. Like all of Browne’s writing, from the initial premise he strayed quickly and seamlessly into philosophical territory: the ultimate transience of human life and earthworms, roots and the convolvulus flower, probing the light or penetrating the earth. His language is florid, dense, and superabundant: like the ancient gardens he describes in the appending Garden of Cyrus, an altogether stranger rumination on the horticultural knowledge of the ancients and the apparently universal symbol in nature of the ‘quincunciall lozenge.’ Uniting the two texts, writes the literary critic Peter Green, is their essential duality and a tracing of patterns that would have appealed to the ambivalent Nash: ‘death and life, body and soul, substance and form, accident and design, time and space, darkness and light, earth and heaven. They can no more be separated than the voices in a fugue; taken together they form one of the deepest, most complex, most symbolically pregnant statements ever composed on the great double theme of mortality and eternity.’
As with any fugue, there are moments when Nash and Browne move in contrary motion. The sedimentary weight of history is a recurring concern in Browne’s text, matched by a heaviness in the text that ‘smells in every word of the sepulchre’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson) and sentences that W.G. Sebald writes ‘resembles processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness. It is true that, because of the immense weight of the impediments he is carrying, Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation. The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time.’ Sebald could as well have been describing Nash’s illustrations, for there is a contrasting lightness in Nash’s touch and in his colour, aided by the hand-coloured pochoir process that simulates exactly the watercolour original. In his log-stacked funeral pyre, or the ‘mansions of the dead’ (left), Nash installs his ‘strange architecture’ and points us away from souls descending to the Underworld and instead gives the ‘sweet fuel’ of ‘cypress, fir, larix, yew, and trees perpetually verdant’ floating skyward from the burning stack, or bird-like souls flitting round the ‘aerial habitations’ of an imagined heavenly vault. His vertical forms tend to look upward or out and uplift, to search for fresh air where Browne digs down, ever deeper, within the loamy world of classical reference, tendrilling like pale white roots into the scholarship of his current topic.
The real allure of Browne’s writing, even at four centuries removed and despite its antiquated erudition, is a kind of conversational intimacy – unsurprising perhaps, for both texts were dedicated to gentleman friends. To read him is like taking a country walk with a talkative companion. Your mind may occasionally stray and wander, your thoughts lost in the moment of the sounds of words and their wandering cadence; but then a turn of phrase, like a peel of birdsong, can stop you in your tracks. Sebald bookends his own literary perambulation, Rings of Saturn, which describes such a walk through the Suffolk countryside, with his own reflections on Browne’s life and writing, and they make for an interesting parallel with Nash’s response. Even in the remotest wooded aspect of his walk, or on the crest of an open field, Sebald describes how he became ‘preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.’ For Sebald, that destruction was the Holocaust: Rings of Saturn is his circumlocutory way of coming to terms with his country’s collusion in that event, much as Urne Buriall was, for Browne, a way of contemplating the unfathomable impact of the recent English civil war and the unknown fate of its dead. In Nash’s own ‘remote places’, including the vignette landscapes conjured by Browne’s prose, there are signs of the destruction he bore witness to in his war paintings: the uprooted trees, cut across by sunbeams, columns in ruin like stumps on the Menin road, and the claustrophobia of entombment, whether in a casket or the mouths of slick mud and gluttonous earth that swallow all in their circumference.
In Nash’s illustrations, perhaps with his father in mind, the skull – the classic memento mori – becomes a significant motif: he drafts it balanced on his own head in a marginal self-portrait, or sunk to the deep among the jellyfish, or with sprouted blonde locks in a coffin. In the first chapter of Rings of Saturn Sebald describes how he was hospitalised a year after his Suffolk walk in Norwich, thirty miles from the location of the Urne Buriall find. Sebald had read in a copy of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that Browne’s own skull resided in the museum of the very hospital in which he was recuperating. Further research confirmed that Browne had lain undisturbed in Norfolk soil from his death in 1682 until 1840, when his coffin was damaged during excavation for another burial, exposing his remains to the Victorian air. A parish councillor left the relic to the hospital museum, where it had remained under a bell jar until the early 1920s, when the skull was reacquainted with its body at the request of the church where Browne had been buried and a second interment took place. ‘Curiously enough,’ Sebald writes, ‘Browne himself, in his famous part-archaeological and part-metaphysical treatise, Urn Burial, offers the most fitting commentary on the subsequent odyssey of his own skull when he writes that to be gnaw’d out of our graves is a tragical abomination. But, he adds, who is to know the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?’ Could Nash have known Browne’s head had been laid to rest only ten years ago?
If Urne Buriall had provided Nash a rich netherworld in which to trial his Surrealist obsessions, Browne’s second text, The Garden of Cyrus, perhaps spoke more to contemporary concerns about abstraction, and specifically abstracting from the forms of the natural world. In this meditation on the history of herbery and horticulture, from the age of Paradise through ancient Persia and beyond, there was plenty of thematic overlap with Nash’s current occupations: cultivation of the land and of the garden, futile attempts by man to introduce order and reason to the enveloping world of nature. The Garden of Cyrus reveals the doctor in Browne, the daily habits of incision, observation and pattern-tracing that circumscribed his lofty dreaming. ‘We study the order of things,’ Sebald paraphrases Browne, ‘but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the shorthand and contracted forms of transient Nature, which alone are a reflection of eternity.’
The ‘contracted form’ of The Garden of Cyrus is the quincunx: a pattern of five points, four at equilateral corners and a fifth in the centre, like the number five on the side of a die. Join the dots diagonally, and you make an ‘X’ shape; tesselate that shape, and you have the repeating ‘lozenge’ pattern which Browne saw knitted into the very fabric of life, from reptile scales to sunflower husks, and to which ancient man had adopted the design of his orchards and plantations.
Writing three years after Urne Buriall was published, Nash revealed that although Browne’s eccentric theory had pushed him to the limits of abstract patterning, reinforcing Browne’s quincunx with glee in his depiction of serpent-entwined pineapples and sheaves of corn, the abstract synthesis he had been searching for ultimately paled before the real thing:
‘I find I still need partially organic features to make my fixed conceptual image. I discern among natural phenomena a thousand forms which might, with advantage, be dissolved in the crucible of abstract transfiguration; but the hard cold stone, the rasping grass, the intricate architecture of trees and waves, or the brittle sculpture of a dead leaf – I cannot translate altogether beyond their own image, without suffering in spirit.’
Urne Buriall would be the last great illustration work Nash produced, and the last of Curwen’s experiments in pochoir, which had proved too costly in current economic climes. The book sold poorly, leaving the publishers to contemplate whether to remainder the unsold balance. But it had proved an essential task for Nash, deepening his understanding of continental Modernism and how it might be resolved with a Neo-Romantic’s interest in his native landscape. A year later he co-founded the avant-garde Unit One alongside Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and others and wrote in its first missive how he had discovered, amid the ‘green pyramids’ of the Wiltshire barrows, the Avebury monoliths that were to become his lasting totems, ‘sixteen feet high, miraculously patterned with black and orange lichen...In the hedge, at hand, the white trumpet of a convolvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun.’ Here, he nods to Thomas Browne: ‘In my art I would solve such an equation.’