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Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Celebrating the role of trees in British Art

Silent Witnesses:
Trees in British Art, 1760-1870
, Christiana Payne

This month Professor Christiana Payne is hosting a conference at Oxford Brookes University on Trees and Wellbeing (registration closes on 4 May!) She recently published a book on trees in British art and in this blog she writes about how she first became interested in these topics.

I’ve been interested in landscape painting for a long time. I very much enjoy walking in the country, visiting mountains or coastal areas, looking at clouds, sunsets and sunrises, and seeing how the seasons change. So it seems natural to me to take an interest in those artists from the past (and present) who have recorded their impressions of these places and effects.

My most recent project has been on trees in British art from 1760 to 1870. The idea came to me from a combination of looking and reading. I saw an exhibition (in Edinburgh) of watercolours by the eighteenth-century artist Paul Sandby, including some amazing pictures of beech trees, and at about the same time (on a holiday in Suffolk) I read a book by the nature writer, Roger Deakin, entitled Wildwood: A Journey through Trees. I realized that here was a new topic, which, surprisingly, had never been treated systematically before. Moreover, it had definite popular appeal.

I knew that some of my favourite artists had devoted a lot of attention to drawing and painting trees – Samuel Palmer, John Constable and Edward Lear. What I didn’t realize when I started was there were some beautiful illustrated books on trees published in my chosen period – and lots of drawing manuals. Evidently, amateurs and artists were drawing trees like mad at this time, getting to know the attributes of the different species and trying to express their ‘character’ as if they were human subjects.

John Constable, Elm Trees in Old Hall Park, East Bergholt (1817).  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The research has given me a new view of British landscape painting – one in which drawing is as important as painting. It has taken me to see watercolours and drawings in public collections, especially the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I’ve enjoyed looking at old books in the Bodleian Library. And I’ve also travelled to see actual trees – the very ancient ones, that were depicted in the eighteenth century and still survive today, such as the Tortworth Chestnut in Gloucestershire, the Ankerwycke Yew, near the spot where Magna Carta was signed, and the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire. In some cases they look exactly like the ‘portraits’ that were made of them in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.

There is something mystical about these huge old trees, and in the eighteenth century people wrote openly of ‘worshipping’ them. They believed that their forefathers – the Druids - had worshipped God in groves, before the building of cathedrals whose architecture mimicked the forms of the forest. They recorded the many popular superstitions that gave magical power to trees.
Neil Gow's oak, Dunkeld

I find that my work gets favourable reactions, because so many people love trees. I had my own favourite trees as a child – an old horse chestnut on which I had a rope swing, and a group of beeches whose roots were intertwined. I once found some money amongst the roots of these beech trees – which then became know in my family as the ‘leprechaun trees’. Now that I live in Oxford I very much enjoy getting to know individual trees in the street, in the local park, and even on the Brookes campus – there is a magnificent oak between the Tonge and Gibbs buildings that I visit regularly. 

Attitudes to trees have been affected by social and political change. Eighteenth-century paintings show humble cottages nestling in the shelter of ancient oaks; by the mid-nineteenth century they depict middle-class visitors picnicking in the woods. Views of landed estates make way for pictures that celebrate public woodland, open to all. Different species rose and fell in popular estimation: oaks acquired special status because they provided the main material for wooden ships, but in the mid-nineteenth century the beech woods were especially loved as places to escape the summer heat of the cities.

Samuel Palmer, In a Shoreham Garden (c. 1830) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Trees purify the air, they hold on to soil to prevent flooding, they provide havens for wildlife. And much recent research shows that they are vital to human wellbeing. So there is a direct link between the perception of trees in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the issues that face us today.

I’m delighted to have been awarded a Research Excellence Award by the University – this will enable me to focus on sharing the results of my research with a wider audience. I have curated an exhibition at the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford, and worked with the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum on activities and resources for visitors.

Christiana Payne is Professor of History of Art at Oxford Brookes

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