Monday, December 10, 2018


For five years (2000-2005) I edited a bi-annual nationally distributed magazine called Tree News, owned by the charity the Tree Council and funded by the late Felix Dennis. You can see all the covers here in a Previous Post. 

The opportunity to talk with some of the world's leading tree experts was eye-opening and to be able to run pictures by some of the great tree photographers of the world was a privilege and a pleasure.

Trees are not only vital for the survival of the planet they are also fascinating organisms to study on many levels. Throughout time they have been worshipped and admired, and  have inspired creativity in artists of all kinds. Their wood has been vital to human societies and has been shaped and formed into habitations, everyday objects and object d'art.

Ever since I finished work on the magazine I have been nursing the idea of doing a book on Trees and Art. I searched for many years to find an existing work with no success. I collected many images that might fit into such a project and there they have sat in my Archive for many years. Now in the last month as chance would have it, I've received review copies of two excellent and valuable volumes on this subject and am chasing a third.

Charles Watkins  is Professor of Rural Geography at the University of Nottingham and is the author/co-author of four other recent books on woods and forests. In 'Trees and Art [Reaktion Press.2018] he combines his scientific, cultural and historical knowledge of trees with relevant biographical detail on artists throughout the ages who have depicted them.

He makes it clear in the introduction that the vast majority of paintings use trees as a framing device or a generalised backdrop, often to indicate the season or location of the main subject in the picture. It was Ruskin who claimed that artists 'understand that they cannot catch nor imitate the foliage, form or lines of the tree.' Yet a small minority did just that, producing works with an accuracy and precision that enables individual species to be identified.

In tackling this complex subject Watkins combines chronological and thematic approaches in the book's ten chapters.

The first 'Depicting Trees Before 1800s' begins with rare prehistoric tree art, the best examples being from Zimbabwe, in which two species - the quiver tree and the the lala palm - can be clearly identified, often depicted with animals nearby. The Roman towns of Pompei and Herculaneum, smothered and preserved by the volcanic ash from the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius, have revealed many wall paintings in which more than 100 identifiable trees have been documented.

'Spruce' by Albrecht Durer c,1497
By the 15th century, the master artists Albrecht Durer and Leonardo were producing the first accurate tree paintings. Durer's single spruce tree portrait illustrates his belief that 'art is embedded in nature, and he who can extract it, has it'. Leonardo in his 'Treatise on Painting' discusses how to  depict different types of woodland, the effect of light on shiny and matt leaves and the movement of leaves in a storm. The pioneering landscape painter and etcher Albrecht Altdorfer viewed trees as being both sheltering and threatening by turn. Claude Lorraine, whose landscapes had a huge affect on British artists in he mid-18th century produced numerous pen, ink and chalk drawings of trees en plain air. The lesser known Alexander Cozens' 1771 publication 'The Shape, Skeleton and Foliage of 32 Species of Trees For the Use of Painting and Drawing' further enhanced the realistic portraiture of trees.

Chapter Two 'Drawing and Painting Trees after 1800'  sees this trend continuing as interest in landscape painting expands. Constable, an admirer of Gainsborough's trees, was obssessed with the subject, making detailed studies which he incoporated into his paintings. Remarkable drawings by Edward Lear, Henry Dawson and Ruskin (which ontradicts his earlier quote) lead into the remarkable paintng by Millais 'The Woodman's Daughter' produced in 1851 when he was just 19. Trees by Monet, Braque, Picasso and Paul Nash are also illustrated.

There we leave the chronology for a series of thematic chapters beginning with 'Trees and Ancient Stories' which principally centres on the depiction of a number of myths and stories from Ovid's 'Metamorphosis and similar tales in which people are transformed into trees. There are two  glorious watercolour drawings by William Blake out of the 102 he produced as illustrations to Dante's 'Inferno' which, in turn influenced DorĂ©'s engravings of the same work.  Mention is also made of the woods and trees in Shakespeare's plays.

'Dante and Virgil Penetrating the Forest' by William Blake  [1824-7]
In 'Lops and Pollards' Watkins reminds us of the enormous importance of trees as a source of fuel and fodder. Examples included range in time from Pieter Brueghel's the Younger 'Two Peasants Binding Faggots' painted c1620  to an early Van Gogh drawing 'Road in Etten' (1881) via Gainsborough, Caspar David Friedrich and many others, depicting the collection of firewood. the pollarding of willows and the harvesting of the leaves of the white mulberry to feed silkworms. This survey concludes with David Hockney's 2006 painting of an elder sprouting with fresh shoots after being cut by mechanical hedge cutters.

The chapter 'Sacred Trees' covers an even longer time period as trees have, since time immemorial, been worshipped as gods and held to be sacred by many different tribes and societies. Trees were also markers of boundaries and routes since prehistoric times and many of those were also shrines. Watkins writes: 'The pillars of churches and temples are closely associated practically and in the imagination with rows of trees'. Visitors to Gaudi's Sagrada Familia will agree that here is a place that, says Watkins, 'presents a forest to the worshippers'.Watkins shows trees that feature in both Botticelli and Michelangelos' frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Here also is one of the few places in the book where art from outside of Europe is featured. There are thousands of sacred trees in Japan to this day and an example is shown in a magical painting by Hiroshige of the legendary pilgrimage of the foxes to the Shozoku Enoki Tree at Oji.

'Nationality, Revolution and War'  centres on the fact, says Watkins, that trees and woods, 'have always been of central importance in insurgency and warfare...and essential for invasion and conquest'. The frieze on the famous Trajan column in Rome features over 200 trees and 24 trees can be identified in the Bayeux Tapestry. Trees have symbolically celebrated successful battles and in the 18th century were seen as symbols of Liberty. The devastation of the forests of Britain, France and Germany during the two world wars of the 2Oth century is still little appreciated. The Nazis were keen on forests and had a forest police force. A remarkable John Heartfield photomontage shows Hitler watering an oak tree whose acorns have turned into gas masks, bombs and helmets.

The  chapter 'European Forest Interiors' documents how these have been seen as both inspiring and threatening by artists. It begins with the wonderful 'The Hunt in the Forest' by Paulo Ucello and ends with the remarkable almost photographic realism of the Russian painter Ivan Shishkin and  Gustav Klimt's beautiful paintings of birch forests.

'The Hunt In The Forest by Paulo Uccello [c.1470]
The largest part of this section is devoted to the ancient forest of Fontainbleau which was a key site for the development of French landscape painting from the 1820s to the 1870s through a group of painters known as the Barbizon school. Corot was an early painter of  this forest (one of his works features on the book's cover) but the leading tree enthusiast of the artistic group was Theodore Rousseau. Watkins writes: 'He saw trees as almost animate, as beneficial creatures which, although they did not think themselves, encouraged humans to think'.  When his idyll was threatened by the planting of commercial conifers (covering 1/4 of the forest) and by mass tourism, he and his painter friend Sensier sent a petition to Napleon III to try and protect it. This was remarkably effective and in 1861 the Emperor decreed that 1,097 hectares of the forest should be set aside as a Partie artistique - the first natural reserve in the world to receive legal national protection.

Another painter Jean Francois Millet became leader of the Friends of the Forest of Fontainbleau Society after Rousseau's death in 1867. Several of his paintings document different aspects of woodland management, the subject of the book's chapter on 'Timber and Trees'. Here also are works by Gainsborough, Edward Lear, Henri Rousseau, Paul Klee and Alfred Munnings, whose 'Felling A Tree in the Vosges' brings us back to the devastation of the forests during the first World War. Watkins says that. in 1916 alone, the Canadian Forestry Corps were thought to have extracted 70% of Allied timber from the forests of northern France.

'Western Art Abroad' is a wide-ranging chapter featuring an artistic arboretum of trees, mainly by little known artists. It was interesting to discover Marianne North (1830-1890) who was one of the most indefatigable painters of trees, landscapes and plants around the world. She gave her paintings to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew together with a large sum of money to build a gallery to house them.

The final chapter 'More Than Real Trees' features works of the imagination from the extraordinary drawings of Hieronymus Bosch to strange works by Dali and Max Ernst. It concludes with a handful of tree-inspired sculptures including work by Ai Wei Wei.

This extraordinary cross-disciplinary work is a remarkable piece of scholarship, full of fascinating knowledge and illustrated with an unexpected asssembly of visual material that confirms the richness of tree art across the ages.
'Cart Bearing a Large Tree Trunk' by Paul Sandby [1731-1809]

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