Paul Maze, 1887-1979

The Anglo-French Paul Maze, born in Le Havre, educated in Southampton and naturalised as a British subject in 1920, is an artist who provides a fascinating link between the French Impressionism of the later 19th century and the post-WWII British celebration of the native countryside, the patterns of domestic life and the cyclical pageantry of the social calendar, during the English ‘Season’.

There are several brief, but informative, biographies of this artist, whose work is available from a number of galleries. Here, we learn about his father’s collection of paintings by Renoir, Monet, Pissarro and Raoul Dufy, and his childhood sketching under the informal tutelage of Pissarro and Dufy. We find reference to friends and neighbours who visited the Paris studio Maze rented after 1918, including Derain, de Segonzac, Bonnard and Vuillard. With the latter, Maze struck up a particularly close friendship and was guided by him to explore the qualities of pastel, which were eminently suited to the younger artist’s taste for brevity and immediacy, expressed with touches and deft strokes of rich and subtle colour.

There are two books on Paul Maze, both full of insight: his own Frenchman in Khaki, published after the First War, with a 1934 introduction by Winston Churchill, and Anne Singer’s 1983 biography, Paul Maze - the Lost Impressionist. Maze’s remarkable activities in the trenches of WWI, with the Royal Scots Greys, were admired by all who heard the, ‘poignant and thrilling story’ of this man who acted, ‘largely on his own initiative’, as interpreter, go-between, messenger, war artist.

'One may imagine the tact which was required in this anomalous figure, neither French nor English, neither officer nor soldier, nor indeed civilian, who collected the conversation of colonels and captains in the most deadly danger, formed his own view upon the situation, and then was allowed that night to walk straight into the Army Commander’s private quarters and tell him all that he had seen and heard.'[1]

Maze’s friendship with Winston Churchill – established during WWI – was doubtless reinforced during WWII, when the artist served once again with the British Army, firstly with the Home Guard and then as personal Staff Officer to Sir Arthur Travers ‘Bomber’ Harris, with whom he became close friends for the rest of his life[2].

These friendships – with Harris and Churchill – played a significant role in Maze’s life. In the 1950s, the painter often stayed with Harris, especially during the Henley Royal Regatta, when he was invited to the Stewards’ Enclosure, from where he could sketch the action. Even more important were Maze’s regular visits to stay with Churchill at Chartwell; they enjoyed a mutually rewarding artistic, as well as personal, friendship[3]. His standing in society was reflected in his commissions: his painted record of the funeral of H.M. King George VI was followed by his being appointed Official Painter to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1953. Exhibitions in London (including his first solo exhibition at the Independent Gallery in 1925, the Marlborough’s A tribute to Paul Maze: the painter and his time, in 1967, and a major retrospective at Wildenstein’s in 1973), New York (1939 and 1952) and Paris (1925, 1945) ensured Maze’s art commanded a wide audience.

From 1950, Maze lived with his wife – the red-haired Jessie, who appeared in many of his pictures at this time – in the small village of Treyford, in Sussex. As the years went by, he became increasingly unwilling to travel further afield - not to the sunny south of Europe, not to his favourite coastal haunts in the south of England or in Normandy, not to depict the racing at Royal Ascot and Goodwood, the Horse Guards on parade or Trooping the Colour, the yachting at Henley and Cowes, not even the local Meets. It was the Downs and the small villages which nestled in their folds, with their dense and sumptuous tapestry of greens, which commanded his attention. And, in 1979, at the age of 92, he was picturing the Sussex Downs in pastel, when he died.

Maze, then, was an artist who benefited from his closeness to the ‘greats’ - whether these were the radical Impressionists or Post-Impressionists, or the pick of British military and political society. His style is deft, decorative and charming - but more than that: it is also poignant, attentive and incisive. His touch is sometimes almost child-like in its clarity, sometimes joyous, gestural and gorgeous. Churchill had the measure of his art when he wrote, in the catalogue of Maze’s first New York exhibition in 1939,

'With the fewest of strokes he can create an impression at once true and beautiful. Here is no toiling seeker after preconceived effects, but a vivid and powerful interpreter to us of the forces and harmony of Nature'.

It is, perhaps, because Paul Maze is quite difficult to pin down that he is less celebrated than he might be. He was both English and French; enjoyed both rustic charm and High Society; had a taste for the small scale and the simplest of materials – oil, watercolour, pencil and pastel – even when depicting the formal pageants of state; was an active link between the radical art of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and the paintings of the great war-time leader of Britain; and was closely linked to the British Establishment, but never moved from his attachment to the modest beauties of the natural world. In some ways, his work can be compared to that of one of his earliest artistic contacts, Raoul Dufy – elegant, tactful, colourful, fresh, agreeable. But, time and again, Maze’s pictures have something more reflective, perhaps more English, about them. At their best, he displays not only a profound attachment to the delights of the world, but also a courageous directness – and a tender recognition that all is passing.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] Winston S. Churchill, Chartwell, 1934, introduction to Frenchman in Khaki.

[2] The introduction to ‘Bomber’ Harris seems to have been effected by Etienne Maze, Paul’s son, who was a Personal Assistant to Harris.

[3] The friendship was sealed by family alliance when, in 1979, Paul Maze’s grand-daughter, Jeanne Maze (daughter of Etienne) married Robert W.C. Spencer-Churchill, first cousin once removed of Winston Churchill.