Nash, Paul (1889-1946), 'Ghost of the Megaceros Hibernicus', Pencil and Watercolour, 1942

'Ghost of the Megaceros Hibernicus', Pencil and Watercolour, 1942

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This 1942 watercolour, one of a series of four on the theme of the ghost, explores both Nash’s interest in the prehistoric landscape and the object-personnage as well as the cyclical nature of life and death. The three related watercolours comprise ‘Kimmeridgian Ghost,The Turtle’ (Courtauld Gallery collection), ‘Ghost in the Shale’ (John Creasey Museum collection) and ‘Kimmeridgian
 Ghost’ (whereabouts unknown).


In an unpublished book called ‘Picture History’ which included notes on his work from 1933-45 prepared for his dealers Albert Tooth & Sons (1943-45), Nash wrote of this series of watercolours:

“Now I was looking round for a new form and character of object-personage.This came to me eventually in a round-about way through studying a book on palaeontology. Looking at the engraved plates of fossil impressions, it seemed to me these delicate, evocative forms could be revitalised in a particular way. I made a series of drawings of ghost personages, which showed them in the environment they naturally occupied in prehistory. The Ghost of the Shale in the Black Cliff of Kimmeridge Clay,The Turtle on the Dorset Shore, the gigantic ghost of Megaceros Hibernicus (Irish Elk) in the Moonlight Forest...”

Nash was familiar with Dorset, having visited Swanage during summer holidays since childhood, yet his fascination for the fossils and geology of the Dorset Coast deepened when he went to live in Swanage between1934 and 1936. In 1935 John Betjeman commissioned Nash to write the ‘Dorset Shell Guide’, his book presented readers with a county infused with history,“with an unexpected focus on the savage, ancient and primitive aspects of that county: the ‘vicious’ seas around its coasts, fossils of prehistoric creatures, and remains at Maiden Castle of a Roman massacre”. Nash’s vision of Dorset as a place where past and present were inextricably linked was clearly communicated in the frontispiece to the guide which featured a photo by Dr Swinton of a scelidosaurus harrisoni which Nash tagged ‘a former native’.

Bertram notes how in all four of the ‘Ghost’ watercolours the forms of the ‘ghost personages’ are subtly re-echoed visually in their surroundings; the rib-cage of the megaceros in the curved lines in the right foreground and the gently undulating spine of the Kimmeridgian Ghost (a pliosaur) in the hills behind. Thus Nash envisaged the prehistoric past as an integral part of the contemporary landscape, the layers of history are combined into a singular timeless vision, a continuation of Nash’s preoccupation with the poetic and mystical overtones of places. Furthermore in both the ‘Ghost of the Megaceros Hibernicus’ and the ‘Ghost in the Shale’ the presence of the sun/moon invites the viewer to muse upon the cyclical nature of life and death.

In terms of style these watercolours signalled a new departure for Nash, and can be considered as a stepping stone towards the freer and more expressive mature style of his final years. Eates describes how ‘the imprints of the living rock became wraith-like, and in a series of misty, dreamy watercolours he traced the shapes of‘The Ghost of theTurtle’,‘The Ghost in the Shale’,‘The Ghost of the Megaceros Hibernicus’ and ‘Kimmeridgian Ghost’.The actual facture of these paintings is perhaps freer and more fluid than anything he had yet produced and foreshadowed a technical development of the following two years, when he frequently employed the basic pencilled outlines of his composition as an almost independent element, not necessarily delimiting the areas of colour but serving rather to reinforce them.’

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Paper Size 40 x 58 cm
Reference Causey, Andrew, ‘Paul Nash, Clarendon Press, 1980, p.458
Denton, Pennie, ‘Seaside Surrealism Paul Nash in Swanage’, Peveril Press, 2002
Eates, Margot (Ed.), ‘Paul Nash Paintings, Drawings and Illustrations’, Lund Humphries, 1948, p.34
Eates, Margot, ‘Paul Nash The Master of the Image 1889-1946’, John Murray, 1973 p.80 & p.133 Tate Gallery Catalogue, ’Paul Nash A Memorial Exhibition’, 1948, p.16
Tate Gallery Catalogue,‘Paul Nash’,Tate Publishing, 2016

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