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Paul Nash Letters to Mercia Oakley

Call Number: MSS 24

Scope and Contents

The collection comprises 51 letters from Paul Nash to Mercia Oakley. The letters date from 1909 to early 1918, with many undated and the vast majority dating from 1909 to 1912. The letters from Oakley to Nash do not appear to have survived. In a primarily playful and intimate tone, the correspondence addresses a range of themes related mostly to Oakley and Nash’s personal lives. The letters verge on stream-of-consciousness, skipping rapidly between subjects. Many focus on the often confusing dynamics within their friendship and Nash’s philosophies toward life and art. Others speak to more quotidian things, such as social events, family news, and travel plans. The letters taper off extensively when Nash meets his eventual wife, Margaret Odeh, in 1913. The collection’s latest letters address both Nash and Oakley’s weddings and speak briefly of Nash’s work as an Official War Artist during the First World War. The collection provides some intimate insight into Nash’s feelings toward the development of his career. He expresses excitement over his studies and successes, as well as disappointment over failed commissions. In 1912, Nash writes extensively of his preparations for his first exhibition at the Carfax & Co., London. He addresses both the exhibition logistics and his expectations surrounding the event. Nash also writes of exhibitions he has seen, as well as books and poetry he has read. Many of the letters are illustrated with playful, often comical sketches, frequently picturing imagined encounters between Nash and Oakley or illustrating humorous anecdotes. Some letters are accompanied by their original envelope.


  • 1909-1951
  • Majority of material found within 1909 - 1912


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Existence and Location of Copies

The letters are transcribed in their entirety in: Dear Mercia : Paul Nash letters to Mercia Oakley, 1909-18, edited by Janet Boulton. Wakefield : Fleece Press, 1991.


Dear Mercia also reproduces the illustrations that accompany Nash's letters in the present collection.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is the physical property of the Yale Center for British Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund


The collection is arranged into two series: I. Letters from Paul Nash to Mercia Oakley; II. Miscellaneous. The letters are arranged chronologically, with some letters dated according to their postmark when the letter is undated.

The numbering of letters (1-51) is aligned with the numbering in Dear Mercia.


.5 Linear Feet (1 box)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


This collection comprises letters from Paul Nash to Mercia Oakley, written from 1909 to 1918.

Biographical / Historical

The painter, printmaker, and designer Paul Nash (1899-1946) was born in London and raised in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire. He trained as an illustrator at Chelsea Polytechnic and the London County Council’s Bolt Court Art School, before enrolling at the Slade School. Nash initially found some success as a bookplate designer. His work from this early period heavily references the British Pre-Raphaelites. Nash sought to fashion himself as a “Painter-Poet,” in the tradition of such figures as Dante Rossetti and William Blake. Nash opened his first solo show in November 1912 at the Carfax Gallery in London, which appears to have been well received. It was through this exhibition that he would become acquainted with the critic and painter Roger Fry. Throughout his career, Nash’s work was characterized by dark overtones and often literary themes. The English landscape was a recurring theme in Nash’s work, often inflected with elements of the political atmosphere of the times. Beginning in the 1920s, Nash worked within something of a surrealist paradigm, which would become even more pronounced during his World War II era art.

At the outbreak of World War I, Nash enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles for home service. In March 1917, he was sent to the front. He was injured in a fall in May 1917, but returned to Ypres Salient as an official war artist in November 1917. His work from this period focused on the effect of war on the landscape. In May 1918, he staged the exhibition “Void of War” at the Leicester Galleries, which led to further painting commissions from the Ministry of Information. Nash also served as official war artist during the Second World War, when he was assigned by The War Artists’ Advisory Committee to the Air Ministry and then the Ministry of Information. In his World War II work, Nash engaged frequently with themes of military technology and destruction. Nash began writing his autobiography, Outline, in 1936 or 1937, but it remained unpublished until 1949 when Faber and Faber released it posthumously. Nash died of heart failure in 1946. In 1948, the Tate Gallery, London held a major memorial exhibition of his work.

The recipient of Nash’s letters, Mercia Oakley was a close friend and confident of the painter. They met as children through Oakley’s godmother, Mrs. George Grimsdale, a neighbor of the Nash family at Iver Heath. Oakley appears to have spent significant time at the Grimsdale’s home, Wings. George Grimsdale was one of Nash’s earliest patrons, commissioning a bookplate in 1916. The relationship between Nash and Oakley is ambiguous. Clearly quite intimate, they appear to have never been romantic partners, though many letters reference this possibility. Oakley married the Grimsdale’s nephew Gerald in 1916.


  1. Causey, Andrew. Paul Nash. Oxford : Clarendon Press ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1980.
  2. King, James. Interior landscapes : a life of Paul Nash. London : Weidenfeld and Nicolson, c1987.
  3. Nash, Paul. Dear Mercia : Paul Nash letters to Mercia Oakley, 1909-18, edited by Janet Boulton. Wakefield : Fleece Press, 1991.
Guide to the Paul Nash Letters to Mercia Oakley
compiled by Kate Phillips; edited by Francis Lapka
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts Repository

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