On editing Paul Nash’s Outline

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In this blog post David Boyd Haycock, editor of Paul Nash: Outline, An Autobiography shares his experience of researching the book.

When Lucy Myers invited me to edit a new edition of Paul Nash’s fascinating (but sadly unfinished) autobiography, Outline, my first thought was that we should try to reproduce the 1949 first edition as closely as possible. It’s a beautiful book in all its aspects – and a collector’s item, too, if you’re lucky enough to find a good copy with John Nash’s dust jacket still intact. The new edition of Outline has been published to wonderfully high standards, well illustrated in full colour, and with John Nash’s original slip-cover reproduced exactly, right down to the lovely original shade of blue. The book feels both brand new and yet of its era, too – as if it’s somehow slipped down to us in a time capsule from seven decades. It’s always a lovely feeling when the first copy of a new book arrives and you know it’s come out just as you hoped it would. This book easily met those expectations.

Furthermore, I was very pleased that we were able to incorporate my other early idea for the new edition: the inclusion of Margaret Nash’s previously unpublished ‘Memoirs of Paul Nash’. Paul and Margaret met in London in 1913, and married not long after the outbreak of the Great War. That war would profoundly change Paul Nash’s life and the whole course of his artistic career. As he would tell a friend when he was struggling to complete Outline during the horrors of another world war in the early 1940s, looking back to his youthful works, prior to 1914 it had all been ‘another life, another world’. And that’s where he eventually decided to end his autobiography: at 1914, and the outbreak of war.

Margaret’s memoir, however, effectively fills in the rest of the story. Not in the same way, of course, that Paul himself would have finished it, nor to the same literary level. But it gives an account of their life together in Margaret’s own, inimitable way – and tells us, at the same time, something of her: a Suffragette who had a degree in History from Oxford University, a woman who devoted her life to helping to advance her husband’s career – to making homes for him, and to nursing him as he became increasingly ill, and to maintaining his legacy after his premature death in 1946.

I also returned to Nash’s letters to Margaret written from the Western Front in 1917, which were an important element of the original edition of Outline. These are now in the Tate Gallery Archive (where they can be viewed online), and it was possible to correct some of the errors that had crept into the 1949 transcriptions, and also to include some of the more personal elements of the letters, which had understandably been excised. Also of interest was obtaining the Hampshire Battalion’s War Diary, to correlate Nash’s letters against the actual events that he experienced as a junior infantry officer on the Western Front. Oddly, Nash’s name did not appear anywhere in this contemporary record, but it was possible to see some of the events that he described in his letters to Margaret – including an unfortunate incident of ‘friendly fire’ in the trenches, that left one of his men dead. I had sometimes seen it suggested that Nash may not even have seen a dead body during his first stint on the Western Front in the spring of 1917. This record seemed to suggest otherwise.

This new edition of Outline, I had thought, might well be my last publication on Nash. (I’ve already written three books either about him, or with him as one of the key figures.) But visiting the recent Nash retrospective at Tate Britain (26 October 2016 to 5 March 2017) I was again struck both by the brilliance and the importance of Nash’s work on the Western Front in 1917 – not just the great oils such as We Are Making a New World and The Menin Road, but the watercolours as well, of which Nash painted over fifty during his two stints in the Ypres Salient. Many of these – perhaps surprisingly – are still in private collections, and many have been unseen for decades. Where are they now, I wonder? It would be fascinating, I thought, to track them down and reproduce them together as a fully illustrated volume. That will hopefully be my next project with Lund Humphries, so please contact me if you happen to own a Nash watercolour from 1917 – or you know someone who does! And please keep watching this space for further news on how the projects develops.

David Boyd Haycock

Paul Nash: Outline, An Autobiography, edited by David Boy Haycock, is available from our website here.