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Marion Adnams, Paul Nash and Matthew Lyons – Wyrd Culture Forebears, Otherly Geometric Landscapes and the Shape of the Future’s Past: Wanderings 4/26

From time to time I discover work that seems like an accidental forebear of “wyrd” culture, and which was created long before the contemporary upsurge of interest in the uncanny, eerie flip side of rural, folk etc orientated culture. An example of this are some of the paintings by Marion Adnams, who lived and worked in Derby from 1898 until her death in 1995.

Apparently her work found recognition during her lifetime but for a fair few years she became semi-forgotten, and there was not an exhibition devoted to her work for fifty years, until one took place at Derby Museum and Art Gallery in 2017-2018.

Interestingly Adnams never provided explanations for her work, believing that they should be interpreted as people wished. This non-explanation continues with her painting’s titles, which are often both evocative and intriguingly cryptic (and also at times somewhat presciently wyrd-like), and which include For Lo, Winter is Past and Monkey Harvest.

There is a decided 20th century “classic” surrealist style to some of her paintings; when I first saw her work it first put me in mind of the work of British surrealist painter, war artist, writer, book illustrator and fabric, poster and stage scenery designer Paul Nash (1889-1946), some of whose work is shown below.

Nash is said to have found inspiration in “landscapes with elements of ancient history, such as burial mounds, Iron Age hill forts such as Wittenham Clumps and the standing stones at Avebury in Wiltshire”, and this seems to presage some of the inspirations and reference points for wyrd / otherly pastoral culture today.

The majority of Nash’s painting are devoid of people, but curiously at times their style, curves etc seem reminiscent of some of artist Tamara de Lempicka’s Art Deco portraits and nudes, which connects with his comments in a letter he wrote to a friend in 1912, where he said “I have tried… to paint trees as tho’ they were human beings… because I sincerely love and worship trees and know that they are people”.

Nash’s His Vision at Evening (above), which he created in 1911, could be seen as a forebear of some of the more new age, mystical sides of contemporary wyrd and otherly pastoral culture. It also could be seen as presciently connecting with the sense of mystical beliefs and landscapism which were part of the inspiration and culture that surrounded elements of festivals and related culture in the 1960s and 1970s, including the Pilton / Glastonbury festivals in 1970 and 1971. As I say in the A Year in the Country: Straying from the Pathways book published in 2019, that period was a time when “in part, festivals were an experiment in alternative ways of living and thinking, and were often inspired by hippie, new age, utopian and later anti-authoritarian ideals, and in keeping with their less commercial and non-mainstream nature they sometimes took place without charging an entrance fee.”

It also seems to capture the “visionary” pastoral spirit of music, culture and the landscape that is explored in some of the earlier sections of Rob Young’s book Electric Eden, where he focuses on, amongst other things, work from the 19th and earlier twentieth century. This includes William Morris’ bucolic utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890), and early twentieth-century composers including Vaughan Williams and Holst, of whom Young says, in a manner that connects their work with Nash’s, that their work was inspired by “thunderbolts of inspiration from oriental mysticism, angular modernism and the body blow of the Great War…”

In contrast to the more oblique titles of Marion Adnams’ work, the title of Nash’s 1918 war painting We are Making a New World (above), appears to be a concisely self-explanatory attack on the intentions and results of the conflict during the First World War.

While his war paintings often have a hellish quality, some of his other landscapes contain a bucolic, gentle, warm atmosphere, which is often accompanied by a sometimes subtle, and at times overt, surreal, modernist and/or geometric aesthetic.

The notable geometric style in some of his work could also be considered a forebear of what elsewhere at A Year In The Country I have called the “otherly geometry” of some graphic design/art, including some of Julian House’s work for hauntological record label Ghost Box Records, and described as “work which often seems to make use of geometric shapes and patterns to invoke a particular kind of otherlyness, to allow a momentary stepping elsewhere”.

Accompanying which, Nash has come to be seen as playing a key role in development of Modernism in English art:

“Modernism is both a philosophical movement and an art movement that, along with cultural trends and changes, arose from wide-scale and far-reaching transformations in Western society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among the factors that shaped modernism were the development of modern industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities, followed then by reactions to the horrors of World War I.” (Quoted from Wikipedia.)

The manner in which modernism was both a “reaction to the horrors” of conflict and also the modernisation of society, cities, industries etc, could be considered part of a cultural/philosophical lineage, which in recent years has included hauntological related work’s utilising of modernist-esque iconography and culture, such as Brutalist architecture, often coupling this with a sense of Cold War Dread and/or a sense of melancholia or mourning for lost progressive post-Second World War futures.

I often associate the phrase modernism with both the just mentioned Brutalist architecture, and also a mid-century modern and populuxe-esque space age future-retro aesthetic. A modern-day use and interpretation of that aesthetic can be found in Matthew Lyons’ illustrations, which I have also written about at A Year In The Country before. His work often invokes a parallel world sense of “the shape of the future’s past”, and could also have its lineage and possible inspirations traced back to Nash’s work and his creation of angular, geometric, and yet painterly, landscapes.



Elsewhere at A Year In The Country:


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