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]


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.