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Paul Nash and King Lear in the SBT Collections

Alexander Thom's concluding thoughts in a series of posts about his research into the afterlives of King Lear

Alexander Thom

Alexander Thom is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, working with the Birthplace Trust as a Research Advocate for Midland 3 Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.

During my time looking at King Lear’s afterlives in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I have written on eighteenth-century playbills, on the theological overtones of Tate’s controversial ending, and on the intersection of visual art and stage design. In some senses, I have tried to write about less intuitive aspects of Lear’s afterlives, the details that might easily be missed, and to read them in such a way that they start to illuminate larger ideas, larger contexts. This, it seemed to me, offered scope for more playful and responsive interrogations of individual holdings; a task more manageable than, for example, attempting a sweeping survey of the SBT’s treasure trove of Royal Shakespeare Company productions (though I dipped into that also – how could I not?).

The temptation for this final post, then, would be to cram in as many of the rare, strange surprises as possible. Or, perhaps, to try and tie together my impressions of myriad holdings into a unified, yet faceted, whole. Neither approach will serve. Instead, I want to conclude by discussing just one, truly remarkable object. This item’s historic significance has resonated with particular force in 2018, of all years.

Among the many splendid illustrated editions of King Lear, there is one that features prints by the British surrealist artist Paul Nash (1889-1946). During the First World War, Nash was one of the war artists employed by the British government. He was sent to the front and what he witnessed informed his artwork. A century after it was first painted, here is Nash’s remarkable ‘Wires’ (1918):

Wires - Paul Nash
Wires by Paul Nash (1918) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2705)

There is much to be said about Nash and his career but this is not the place. Suffice it to say that, in 1927, an edition of King Lear was printed, including a series of sketches of key scenes by Nash. I must confess, I was surprised by them. The bare, angular composition and meagre colouring didn’t correspond with the vivid, bustling images I had always imagined for these scenes. Weeks later, however — re-reading the play — I found that Nash’s visions kept circling in my mind. For better or worse, they have lodged in my imagination. Here, for example, is his rendering of Gloucester’s blinding.

Gloucester's blinding - Paul Nash
Illustration from 83426355, Shakespeare's The tragedie of King Lear : newly printed from the first folio of 1623.

The image is unsettling: the bristling shadows, the alien architecture, and the angular figures, hauling away in their terrible, half-lit exertions. Here, too, is Lear’s final entrance.

King Lear's final entrance - Paul Nash
Illustration from 83426355, Shakespeare's The tragedie of King Lear : newly printed from the first folio of 1623.

There is something haunting about the supreme distance of this image. Lear and Cordelia are barely distinguishable from the tented field, only faintly sketched lines suggesting the dishevelled hair and crumpled clothes of a man bearing his dead daughter.

In an important sense, I feel as if there is very little I can acceptably say about all of this. Yet it seems worthwhile, perhaps, to acknowledge that Nash — an artist tasked with capturing the limits of humanity — was able to capture something quite unique and unprecedented from Shakespeare’s bleakest play. On the other hand, the very specific difficulty of responding to this afterlife, this holding, also carries over to some of the wider challenges this kind of research presents. And it’s on these (often joyful) difficulties that I wish to finish.

The beautiful reality of archival work is that it is always a Russian doll of failures. With Nash and with the other items, I know I have failed to do justice to the objects I’ve discussed; just as I’ve failed to discuss the vast majority of the items I examined; just as I failed to examine the vast majority of the holdings relevant to my work. There are certain metaphors that have been associated with King Lear as a play. One of my favourites is that approaching the play is like approaching a mountain shrouded in mist. If it is true of the play itself, it is true too for Lear’s afterlives.

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