Monday, December 10, 2018


Pastoral with a Horse Chestnut
Tree (1830-31] by Samuel Palmer
A Study, In March by
 John William Inchbold. 1855

'Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art, 1760-1870' by Christiana Payne [Sansom and Company 2017] was produced to coincide with the Woodland Trust's initiative 'Charter for Trees, Woods and People'  - signed up to by 70 tree organisations - and launched at Lincoln Castle on the 800th anniversary of the 1217 Charter of the Forest

At Binsey, Near Oxford by George Price Boyce. 1862

Fir Trees at Hampstead by John Constable.
The Cypresses at the Villa d'Este
by Samuel Palmer. 1836

In her introduction to this well-written and beautifully illustrated study of tree art in Britain (1760-1870), Christiana Payne sets out what she calls 'the artistic response to the beauty and usefulness of the tree in Britain' in the context of the boom of landscape painting during this period and the passionate interest in trees - aroused in not only artists and writers but also in naturalists, landscape gardeners and rich land owners.

This was  partly because trees in Britain were relatively scarce and there were few native species - an estimated 30 broadleaf  and five evergreen - owing to the fact that it was cut off from continental Europe during the Ice Ages.

There was also a shortage of timber within the country from the 16thC onwards and, by the 17thC, Britain was one of the least wooded countries in Europe with less than 5% of its area planted with trees.[Currently 13% of the total land area in the UK.] This situation inspired  John Eveleyn to write Sylva (first published in 1664) - one of the most influential texts on forestry ever published - to encourage tree planting.

However it did have more ancient woodland and signature ancient trees, relative to the percentage of total woodland, than any other European country and these were considered rare and special. Trees in hedges were more plentiful in the 18thC than before or since and most villages at that time would have a central tree next to a village green and an alehouse.

Demand for timber was increasing due to the needs of the navy. Payne reports that  building a 74-gun ship would require 2,000 well-grown oak trees with elms for the keel. An 1812 estimate was that, in order to maintain the Royal Navy at its then current levels, 100,000 acres of trees would be required.

The Royal forests covered 115,000 acres of which only 60-70,000 had the rich, well-drained soil necessary for growing oaks.  Between 1760 and 1835, private landlords planted and estimated 20 million trees and, by 1887, the amount of woodland in private hands covered 2.5 million acres.

The start of the industrial revolution in the late 18thC created a further demand for wood to make charcoal, pit props for the mines, many domestic items and to provide fuel for cooking and heating. There was massive market also for oak bark which was used to tan leather. In 1810, at its height, the industry required 500,000 tonnes of oak per year.

 As landscape design shifted towards the Picturesque, collections of exotic trees in arboretums became popular. The number of varities of shrubs and trees coming into Britain steadily increased as its Empire expanded,  from 89 new varieties in the 16thC to 699 in the first 30 years of the 19thC. The horse chestnut arrived sometime in the 17thC, the Lombardy Poplar in 1758. Orchard apple trees came from central Asia.

The notable landscape artists of several generations primarily painted oak, ash, elm and beech. Most were working mainly for patrons with landed estates. Many paintings - the most well-known being Gainsborough's 1746 painting of 'Mr and Mrs Andrews' in front of an ancient oak - featured family portraits.

There were a considerable number of drawing manuals catering for what Payne desribes as a 'massive explosion of interest in the drawing of trees'. Constable and Samuel Palmer were outstanding tree lovers but the lesser known artist Paul Sandby was, says Payne, one of the first to take interest in individual species and the growth pattern of trees. Drawings aside, an outpouring of water colours, etchings, engravings and lithographs of trees were produced. Mostly they were isolated tree portraits. Constable avoided any instruction manuals when producing his graphite sketches and viewed trees in a landscape paintings as being like actors in a history painting.

With the arrival of the Pre-Raphaelites in the period 1840-70, Payne tells us that tension between the general and the particular in the painting or drawing trees became a major issue. Certainly Holman Hunt and the two Millais brothers were into the minutae and did careful studies of timber and foliage.

Silent Witnesses provides the detailed evidence of the importance of trees in British landscape painting. Its a valuable work that adds new perspectives to previous studies of the period.

'Under the Greenwood: Picturing British Trees From Constable to Kurt Jackson' was the book of an exhibition staged at the St Barbe Museum, Lymington in 2013. This review of the show by Andrew Lambirth in The Spectator gives a flavour of the event. The book itself is out of print and rare copies are expensive.

Such was the impact of the show and the spirit of camaraderie engendered in a truly diverse group of artists that they took on a more permanent identity. The Arborealists is the name of this loose association of artists, including such luminaries as David Inshaw, who have come together for exhibitions in galleries across the south.

The Generalist has managed to locate a rare copy of  The Arborealists: The Art of the Tree book by Angela Summerfield. More details to come.

Both titles are published by Sansom & Company.

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