Saturday, 25 February 2012

'But First Maintain the Wall': Paul Nash's Dymchurch

"Serve God Honour the Queen
But First Maintain the Wall"
Romney Marsh motto

A frontier land facing the English channel, the coast of Romney Marsh has long been the last line of defence against foreign invaders. Strong fortifications — the round, brick masses of Martello towers, a redoubt fort atop a grassy mound at Dymchurch and, closer inland, a military canal — still stand, centuries after they were built to withstand the advances of Napoleon, an enemy who never came. It was this lonely, windswept stretch of coast, on the edge of the country and on the way to nowhere, where the painter Paul Nash chose to recuperate after witnessing first-hand the brutalities and destruction of the first world war, first in the trenches at Ypres and then as an official war artist.
When peacetime came, Nash took a small house, Rose Cottage, in the sleepy seaside village of Dymchurch, Kent. In the 1920s, he produced a series of paintings of the sea wall which stretches around the bay, built to defend the Marsh from the ongoing and ever-present threat of the sea. In front of the wall, at low tide, the sands stretch out into the horizon, a thin surface of water creating a reflective sheet that catches the changing colours of the Marsh sky. The sea’s ripples etch themselves into the sand and small streams spread as if stretching out networks of roots. At high tide, waves churn against the rocks shoring up the wall and submerge the steps that take walkers down onto the beach. The other side of the wall lies Dymchurch, at the edge of the vast, flat Marsh, scattered with sheep, occasional settlements and winding country roads.

It's thought that the sea wall which dominates this stretch of coast dates back to Roman times. In the fifteenth century, a ‘scot tax’ was demanded of all local landowners. If they lived above sea level they were let off — scot free. Later, in the eighteenth century, the wall was repaired with earth and branches from the Marsh. At the start of the nineteenth century, a three mile-long section was constructed using Kent rag stone and concrete. Today, you can see where the wall has been added to and extended in the different shades of concrete, which is flecked brown with the same shingle that collects at the edge of the beach below. The wall curves inwards around the coast, mimicking the rolling of the waves beneath and acting as both a shelter/windbreak for holidaymakers underneath it (from sand, from rain) and a barrier to contain the waves, scooping them up and sending them back out to sea.

On the bleakest of days, the grey of the sea wall reinforces the grey of the sea beneath and the sky above. Nash’s seascapes are often empty and stark, their colours hyperreal (see the dark greens, mustard yellow and forceful black of ‘Sea by Night, Dymchuch/Night Tide' or ‘Wall Against the Sea’, which casts the bay in the type of ominous, sickly glow that only occurs preceding a storm). Forms are simplified and suggested; the manmade and the natural merge into one. In ‘The End of the Steps’, a quiet scene dominated by the bulk of an impenetrable-looking concrete defence, the sharply angled sky looks as much of a construction as the manmade object. In ‘Winter Sea’, a fragmented sea sets out in massive slabs, shaded grey, black and white, towards a faint moon, like the regular descent of stone steps. When figures appear, as in ‘Promenade’, they turn their backs to the viewer, just as the wall turns its back on the village. In ‘Night Tide, Dymchurch’, the solid back of the solitary night time walker appears as just another line in the defence. It's this sparseness that makes Nash's seascapes the most powerful of his paintings: the emptiness of the sands amplifies feelings of solitude and loneliness, emphasising how small the human is in relation to the vast natural world, and brings to mind the strange semi-silence in the air, found only by the seaside, that multiplies the lone walker's thoughts, doubts and preoccupations into a background roar as inescapable as that of the sea.
Nash was of a generation that fought and suffered for the right to make a modern world, to sweep away the old and, out of chaos, build stability. In Romney Marsh, it’s as if time stood still. The view around the coast has changed little, save from the odd holiday park, new residential development and the sizeable bulk of Dungeness power stations in the distance. Nash left Dymchurch after a few years, moving a few miles across the border to East Sussex. The next decade, the world was at war again and Nash painted propaganda, before dying young after suffering years of ill health. The Romney Marsh coast once again played a part in the war effort: the Martello towers and the redoubt fort which, with each decade, grow closer to crumbling into the sea, were requisitioned as lookout points and stationed with anti-aircraft guns.

The war was won but the fight against the sea goes on. In the past decade, the sea wall has undergone extensive renovation, using precast and poured concrete and steel reinforcement, and was reopened in 2011. It’s a battle that will never finish: the metal has already started to rust and bleed into the wall, and the concrete is taking on the sea’s bright green, mossy sheen and dappled black and yellow bloom.

Related but unrelated:

Some Pathe newsreels of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, a miniature railway between Hythe and Dungeness in Kent (via Dymchurch), which was put to use during the second world war:



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