Visual Arts in Ayrshire

The Maclaurin Art Collection  ~  Middle Period Purchase

David Nash  RA OBE b1945

1.   Boat

2.   Boat

3.   Drawing

David Nash OBE (b.1945) is the great woodworker in a celebrated generation of British sculptors that includes Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow and the Richards: Deacon, Long and Wentworth. He makes everything out of trees. His works involve hewing, carving and occasionally charring trees where they have collapsed in the landscape from storm or disease – he is perennially green-minded – and sometimes shaping live specimens where they grow.

His sculptures may allude to the wooden objects of daily existence, such as chairs, ladders, shelters and tables; or they may tend to a geometric abstraction that can't help resonating with our material world in any case. A gigantic charred sphere on a grassy knoll at Kew resembles a perished rubber ball. A humped kernel recalls a nut or seed.

Kew Gardens is the inevitable destination for Nash, in one sense: the sculptor of trees surrounded by thousands of natural tree-sculptures. But this is also a most risky enterprise. A park filled with so many stunning variations on the essential tree form is bound to throw an emphasis on beauty (and variety) that is not always kind to this artist, whose work is so much the result of conspicuous labour.

Take the Temperate House, where a dozen and more sculptures are positioned among the palms, ferns, waterfalls and towering trees like creatures in a jungle. They are placed with enough sensitivity so that one might only glimpse them by chance, and there is a certain camouflage effect in the affinities between natural and man-made shapes.

But Nash's columns are heavily incised, his totems hacked, his lattices coarsely hewn and his primordial humps obviously worked with a chainsaw. The blackened table bearing a charred cone, cylinder and cube is particularly unsuccessful next to a fringed pond, like some attention-seeking piece of atrium decor.

Everything growing around these sculptures looks ingenious, strange and subtle by comparison, so that one is forced back upon considerations of method and materials for anything like a decent appreciation.

Which may be why the curators have no choice but to draw attention to them too; to note that this work was carved of elm or that one axed out of oak; that this was made in Japan and that one on location in Napa Valley.

But these anecdotes add nothing to the works themselves other than a spurious air of legend. Visually, they make very little difference. I had imagined that because Nash never overworks his surfaces – splinters, fissures and knots are an integral part of each piece – the character of the wood itself would be crucial; and perhaps it is to him. But again, that is not embodied or expressed in the work.

In recent years Nash has cast some of his wood-works in bronze. There is a beautiful piece, King and Queen, in which two slender tapering stacks are delicately positioned so as to suggest a human relationship – together but separate, pausing, waiting, a conversation unresolved. It's a tremulous union made stately by the darkened bronze.

The idea irresistibly recalls Henry Moore's royal couples, of course, and that is very much how it goes with Nash. His art is constantly harking back to early modernism, reprising Cézanne, Picasso or Moore, Brancusi's Endless Column or Epstein's Rock Drill. Depending on your viewpoint, it may seem timeless or oddly old-fashioned. But at its worst, it can come across as kitsch – Brancusi redone with knobs on.

This is an immense retrospective, spreading from park to pavilion and filling two galleries. It includes drawings, studies, films about (and by) Nash, numerous sculptures and an outdoor studio full of works in progress. What it shows, over several hundred acres, is a peculiarly variable oeuvre.

Every now and again something mighty will come of an oak, or something wondrous from an ash. There is a powerful work near the main entrance called Oculus Block, a foursquare lump of eucalyptus emerging from the natural fusion of four trunks from one root. Nash discovers interior passages and secret viewing points within, making a grand canyon out of a tree.

But then again the nearby Charred Cross Egg is a great blank of a work: a huge elongated egg of charred wood, carved all over with heavy crosses. None of these attributes enhances any of the others and together they cancel each other out. Only the title has impact, by virtue of its bluntness.

That Nash is dedicated to trees has never been in doubt. His writing about them is a kind of prose-poetry in itself, full of empathy for their solitude, purpose and grandeur. What he makes of them with his axe and chainsaw is something quite different, alas – a much less eloquent art.

4.   Nsh at Kew

5. Nash with saw


David Nash  RA OBE b1945

1.  The Elemental Boat, 1986 on display in Gallery One at the Maclaurin Art Gallery.  David Nash b1945.  Oak, hewn and charred. Maclaurin Art Collection, Ayr. Purchased from the artist in 1987, with a purchase grant from the National Fund for Aquisitions.  Photograph 1993:  ©M Bailey.

2.     Making the Elemental Boat, River Girvan, Ayrshire 1986. David Nash(b.1945).  oak, hewn and charred..  Maclaurin Art Collection, Ayr.  Photograph:  1986  © David Nash

3.  Launching Elemental Boat, River Girvan, Ayrshire 1986.  David Nash b.1945. Oak, hewn and charred. Maclaurin Art Collection, Ayr.

Exhibited in The Unpainted Landscape, a Scottish Arts Council touring exhibition opening in Ayr and touring to Pier Arts Centre (Stromness), Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Edinburgh), Artspace Gallery (Aberdeen), Collins Gallery (Glasgow) and Crawford Centre for the Arts (St. Andrews).

4.   David Nash in one of Kew's glasshouses from artist in residence at the Royal Botanical Gardens, The Observer, 2013.  Photograph:©Andrew McRobb

5.   David Nash, Sculptor, alumnus of Kingston University..   Photograph ©Ian Parker

David Nash chose to come to Scotland to make his work for the exhibition and settled on a river location on the Blairquhan Estate in Ayrshire.

In this way the sculpture was directly related to the landscape and practical problems of transportation minimised.

A fallen oak tree was selected and hewn into the shape of a vessel, burnt beside the bank of the River Girvan and launched into the water through fire. The object or "relic" of this activity reveals the origins of its making in the fusion of the natural elements of fire, earth, air and water, which support life.

From a fallen oak David Nash hewed a boat shaped like a double wishbone. This shape is immanent in the tree, its possibility characteristic of what the tree is. Nash conceives of a world woven of primitive elements (space, earth, air, water and fire) and his art as a way of attending to the way things are in the world.

His is a domain of neither wilderness nor town, rather he stresses the axial nature of our productive involvement with the land. In agricultural practices throughout the world, trees have comprised both a resource (for building and burning) and a limit (to the size of crop fields), and have been both treated as vegetable vermin and revered.

Nash considers wood the pre-eminent material for engaging the elements, poetically and practically. He extends farming techniques to his artistic ends, and fire is the most protean of these tools. Fire solders microchips and produces continental grasslands. The Elemental Boat focusses these elements in a three-hour ritual of cauterisation and quenching, annealing the surface of the cut wood and charring it to a parody of bark. Nash's is a disturbing art, for its use of land-management techniques in the absence of an economic necessity can highlight that myopic reconstruction of the natural world that is indeed the aim and consequence of an agriculture that seeks to dominate nature with its unnaturing practices.

From the Exhibition Publication, The Unpainted Landscape, Scottish Arts Council and Coracle Press 1987.   A Hard Singing of Country
© David Reason and Coracle Press.

Twenty Five years ago, in the Spring of 1984, James Bustard of the Scottish Arts Council asked Coracle to organise an exhibition of very physical, literalistic sculpture to be toured within Scotland.  The outcome, created in collaboration with the Graeme Murray Gallery in Edinburgh was a remarkable and unsettling collection of largely sculptural works shown under the title of The Unpainted Landscape.

Launching the boat
David Nash (b.1945)  Launching Eleemental Boat, River Girvan, Ayrshire 1986, Charcoal Drawing on paper.  Maclaurin Art Collection, Ayr.  Photograph ©David Nash 1986   magnify

In an introduction to the selected works, author Simon Cutts of Coracle Press, speaks of a selection of some artists who, while working with the landscape, do so in another way.  They did not try to reproduce the appearance of the landscape by way of painted effects.  Here, the artists have chosen to work with wider means than the traditional oil or watercolours.  They have used the recording photograph, the idea of time and sequence to make a journey, the notion of change and substitution in a place.  Overall, there is a strong physical presence that reflects an event that occurred in another time and another place.

The exhibition was launched at the Maclaurin Art Gallery in Ayr on 10th January, 1987, subsequently touring to Stromness, Edinburgh Aberdeen, Glasgow and St Andrews.  In preparation for the exhibition, staff at the Maclaurin worked closely with sculptor David Nash, helping him find a location in which to make his work, assisting in the realisation of the work and, eventually, acquiring his Elemental Boat for the permanent collection

David Nash, Elemental Boat, River Girvan, Ayrshire 1986

Nash visited Ayrshire in the Spring of 1986.  Over a period of two days, in company Mike Bailey, Director of the Maclaurin Art Gallery, he visited a variety of locations in the Carrick area, including Loch Bradan, Dunure, Culzean and Straiton.  Finally, during an exploration of the Blairquhan Estate, a fallen oak was found beside the river Girvan.  This piece was ideal for the creation of an elemental boat.  In late summer of 1986, Nash returned to the River and completed his work.

David Nash(b.1945)  Fashioning the Elemental Boat, River Girvan, Ayrshire 1986, oak.  Maclaurin Art Collection, Ayr.  Photograph ©David Nash 1986   magnify

Following his usual practice of creating his work close to an exhibition venue, David Nash had chosen to come to Scotland to make his work for the exhibition.  He settled on a river location on the Blairquhan Estate in Ayrshire. In this way the sculpture was directly related to the landscape and practical problems of transportation minimised. A fallen oak tree was selected and hewn into the shape of a vessel, burnt beside the bank of the River Girvan and launched into the water through a fire kindled from discarded material. The object or "relic" of this activity reveals the origins of its making in the fusion of the natural elements of fire, earth, air and water, which support life.

David Nash  RA OBE b1946

David Nash studied at Kingston College of Art from 1963 to 1967 and at Chelsea School of Art (Postgraduate) from 1969 to 1970. Nash’s first solo exhibitions were held in 1973 at Queen Elizabeth Hall, York and at Oriel, Bangor, Wales. These rapidly led to a series of solo exhibitions throughout the UK and his international reputation was established after his first solo shows overseas were held in 1980 at Elise Meyer Gallery, New York and at Galleria Cavallino, Venice, Italy. Since then, he has continued to hold solo shows on an annual basis throughout the world.

Nash’s work has also been included in numerous international key group exhibitions since 1970. These include 'The Condition of Sculpture', at the Hayward Gallery, London (1975), 'British Art Now: An American Perspective', at the Soloman R Guggenheim Museum, New York and tour (1980), 'British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, Part II', at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (1981) and 'Aspects of British Art Today', at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in (1982).

More recently his work was included in 'Here and Now', at the Serpentine Gallery, London (1995), 'Sculptors’ Drawings 1945-90', at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and 'The Shape of the Century: 100 Years of Sculpture in Britain', at Salisbury Cathedral and Canary Wharf, London (1999). In 2000 his work 'Cube, Sphere, Pyramid' was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest for the nation.

Charcoal on paper David Nash is represented by Annely Juda Fine Art, London; Galerie LeLong in Paris, Zurich and New York; Galerij S65, Aalst, Belgium; Nishimura Gallery, Tokyo and the Haines Gallery, San Francisco. Nash was elected a Royal Academician in 1999, the same year in which he was appointed a Research Fellow, University of Northumbria, Newcastle and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Art and Design by Kingston University. Nash lives and works in North Wales.

hree magnificent figures rise as high as the trees in a clearing at Kew Gardens. Everyone stops to stare. Towering above our heads, strength coursing through their limbs, they appear to forge forwards through the sun and rain like strange new beings breaking into motion. They are, in fact, trees themselves.

Trees, to be precise, which are still recognisably trees; they have yet to be turned into sculptures by David Nash, although that will happen in the next few weeks. What's visible just now is the raw material: these monumental oaks, their roots and branches sawn off, stationed on the earth like statues. Each has been turned upside down, so that the boughs become legs and the trunks are torsos. The wonder comes from a simple act of inversion.

What will Nash do to make them his? The one sure thing is that he will not leave them in this pure state. Whatever they are now – mighty striding figures, bare forked animals, marvellous old forms three centuries in the making – he will work them into something else. Craft will overcome concept.


This page is based on recollections by Mike Bailey , and other published sources.   Mrs Mary E Maclaurin's Trust is a Registered Scottish Charity

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Maclaurin Art Collection ~ Updated March 5, 2016