Trees could play a major role in 15th century religious paintings. In The Stigmatization of St Francis, by Sassetta (1437-44, Room 54), the trees are carefully distinguished from each other and belong to identifiable species. The tree on the right, whose leaves reflect the radiance of Francis's vision of Christ, is a laurel, a tree that symbolised eternal life, and victory over death, because it is an evergreen and one that provided the laurel wreaths for the winners in sporting events. In the centre, next to the tiny chapel, there is a cypress, a tree associated with cemeteries, death and mourning. Its flame-like profile was also loved by Van Gogh, whose painting, A Wheatfield with Cypresses, hangs in room 43.
I love the amazing oak tree in Filippino Lippi's Madonna and Child with SS Jerome and Dominic (c. 1485), room 57. Placed behind the figure of St Jerome, it accentuates the rugged nature of his life in the wilderness, and his steadfastness in his devotion to Christ.
It's difficult to see this detail in the gallery, because it's a large painting - but here you can see (a) that the oak is growing next to a very different tree, which looks like an ash and (b) there is a bird feeding its young at the top of the tree - a parallel to the Madonna suckling her baby. So the artist is not just observing trees, he's interested in the wildlife they support, as well. The leaves of the oak tree are carefully outlined, and the artist has placed leaves lit up by the sunlight against the darker mass of foliage. He's also given his oak tree a gnarled trunk, with stumps where branches have been cut off.
A tree has a starring role in this painting by Gerolamo dei Libri in room 61 - The Virgin and Child with St Anne (1510-18). It's a beautifully painted lemon tree, complete with flowers and fruit. Why does he place his figures against a lemon tree? Possibly because of the associations of lemons with health and cleanliness - it is thought that the painting commemorates a dreadful plague in Verona in 1510-12.
I've selected 22 watercolours and drawings for a series of 'topic boxes' - these are available for visitors to look at in the Prints and Drawings Study Room, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Not surprisingly, they are all depictions of trees! This is one of the largest drawings - in the 'Imperial' section. I've written notes for all the drawings, which you can read as you look at them.
These are my notes on the drawing above:
John Constable (1776-1837) - Trees at East Bergholt (1817)
This careful drawing of black poplar trees on the towpath near Flatford Mill was made on 17 October 1817. Constable’s painting, A Scene on a Navigable River (now known as Flatford Mill, Tate Britain) had been shown at the Royal Academy earlier that year, but had come back to Constable unsold. He was evidently dissatisfied with his painting of the trees, and made this drawing to assist himself in a repainting of part of the canvas. The drawing is on the same scale as the painting, and it is faintly squared for transfer.
For a long time it was thought that these trees were elms, and they have only recently been identified as black poplars, a relatively rare tree. Constable’s friend, the etcher Jacob George Strutt, described the black poplar as a classical tree, held by the ancients to be sacred to Hercules. He wrote that in calm weather ‘drops of water … hang upon its leaves, with the refreshing coolness of a summer shower.’
Comparison with other drawings by Constable of the same trees shows that he delineated their branches very accurately, recording idiosyncracies that might have been seen as defects, such as the stumps on the foreground tree where branches have been cut off, and the irregular silhouette of the further tree.
Constable made many beautiful drawings of trees. Some of the best examples are in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection: Elm Trees in Old Hall Park, East Bergholt (1817) and Fir Trees at Hampstead (1820) may also be seen in the Study Room, on request.
So if you are in the V and A (perhaps looking at their new display on trees in children's book illustrations, www.vam.ac.uk/event/noKN2PwQ/into-the-woods-trees-in-illustration), and you have time to go into the Study Room, do ask for the topic boxes on Trees.
The exhibition at the Higgins Bedford is nearly installed now, ready for the private view this Thursday (it opens to the public on September 30th). My co-curator Victoria Partridge had the brilliant idea of using dark brown walls and internal free-standing walls to make visitors feel that they are actually walking through a shady wood. The display really shows off the beautiful wooden floor and benches, too.
I'm currently working on text panels and labels for this exhibition, which opens at the end of September. I'm working with the Keeper, Victoria Partridge. It's an exciting project as the Higgins, Bedford (formerly the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery) has a wonderful collection of British watercolours and prints. There will be about 40 works in the show, including some of my favourite artists: John Constable, Samuel Palmer, Francis Towne, John Sell Cotman, Peter De Wint, Richard Redgrave, George Price Boyce, Edward Lear, Paul Nash and John Nash. There are also some stunning works by Lucian Freud and Graham Sutherland which are growing on me!
We have a whole section entitled (provisionally) 'Magical Trees' - it's actually the largest section - including all those works in which the trees are imagined, or dreamlike, or possessed of magical powers.
I think these two watercolours are my favourites: by John Nash and Edward Lear. I can't get over the delicacy of John Nash's painting of the dead trees with their drooping? draping? branches? twigs? (I'm having trouble finding the right words to describe them). And the Lear studies of Bassae fascinate me because he was there in the winter - as he records on this watercolour, there was snow - and he comments in his Journal that it would be so much more beautiful if the oaks were in leaf - yet all his studies show trees with lots of foliage. Is he imagining the oaks as they would be, or are these the smaller ilex (evergreen oaks) he also saw there?
When he came to paint a large oil, based on these studies, he put a large, mature oak tree in the foreground and painted it painstakingly from nature - but in Britain. This painting is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
(I'm also fascinated by these studies as I've been to Bassae and the temple is now under a huge tent for reasons of conservation - I would love to see it as Lear saw it - though perhaps not in a snowstorm!)
I've very much enjoyed reading Peter Wohlleben's book, The Hidden life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate - Discoveries from a Secret World. In one chapter, he talks about the individual personalities of trees, how they will behave differently in the same situation. One will be cautious, shedding its leaves early, while another will live dangerously and hang on to them as long as possible. When a gap appears in the forest, one tree will grow lower branches, exposing itself to danger from fungi when the gap closes up and the lower limbs wither from lack of light, another will be more prudent and resist the temptation.
A passage in Strutt's Sylva Britannica, similarly, insists on the individual character of a tree:
"To the casual observer of nature the view of one tree may seem much like the view of another; ... but it is very different with the ardent contemplatist of Nature ... He loves to trace in each individual specimen, its particular anatomy and character. Every winding branch, and every shooting stem, has a charm for him; and he is interested throughout each stage of the existence of these wonderful vegetables, from the tender sapling to the leafless withered trunk." (p. 19)
Constable's Study of Trees made in the grounds of Charles Holford (Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford) illustrates this perfectly. There seems to be no logical explanation for the twisting rhythms of the Scots pine, which make it look like a dancer partnered by the rigidly upright larch next to it.
Recently, I was asked to write an article on portraits of remarkable trees in George III's collection of topographical prints, held in the British Library. I didn't know this collection at all, and was able to spend a happy afternoon looking at the prints in the huge volumes into which they have been pasted. The prints I chose to write about included portrayals of trees I already knew, such as the Cowthorpe Oak and the Moccas Oak, but also some others that were new to me.
I was especially intrigued by the great elm tree near Philadelphia, under which William Penn had concluded a treaty with the local Native Americans. The print illustrating this tree was produced simultaneously in London and Philadelphia in 1801, by publishers who had offices in both cities. The treaty was concluded in 1682; the print was made in 1801; only nine years later the tree was blown down in a storm.
J. M. W. Turner, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – Italy, 1832. Tate Britain.
Compared to some of his contemporaries, Turner was not overly interested in trees. He rarely made studies of trees on his travels, and in later life he apparently told one of his followers that he wished he could do without trees in his landscapes. His taste in trees was based on the paintings of his eighteenth-century predecessors, John Robert Cozens and Thomas Jones.
Many travellers to Italy admired the stone pines. In 1817 the poet William Wordsworth saw a solitary pine tree on Monte Mario and was told that his friend Sir George Beaumont had bought it to save it from being felled. Wordsworth described it as “one of the broad-topped pines, looking like a little cloud in the sky, with a slender stalk to connect it to its native earth.”
In his British landscapes, Turner shows a preference for slender trees, such as Scots pines and willows, rather than the major forest trees, oak, ash, beech and elm, and sometimes his supposedly British trees look remarkably Italianate. Their beautifully-shaped heads act like clouds in the sky, while their slender trunks seem to sway slightly in the breeze.
By the time Turner finally got to Italy in 1819, he had already painted many Italianate trees. In the Italian landscapes of his maturity, such as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1832, Tate), there is often only a single tree, a tall stone pine with a slender trunk and a compact head of foliage, which became a kind of signature tree for him.
Edward Lear, Corfu from Ascension, c. 1860. Yale Center for British Art
Edward Lear was the first British artist to give proper attention to olive trees. We have no difficulty finding olive trees beautiful today, but in the eighteenth century an artist visitor to Tivoli, Thomas Jones, thought them “thin & stragling” and only good for distances. Edward Lear saw his first olive trees at Lecco, on his way to Rome, and wrote to his sister Ann “I think them very beautiful, more like a huge lavender bush, or a fine grey willow than anything else, and all over green olives.” When he made drawings of Tivoli, he placed the olive trees in the foreground, lavishing attention on their twisting trunks and branches, with the villa at Tivoli and its famous waterfalls visible only in the distance, in a gap between the trees.
Lear also travelled extensively in Greece and Albania, and his favourite place was Corfu, of which he wrote “The extreme gardeny verdure – the fine olives, cypresses, almonds, and oranges, make the landscape so rich.” Lear preferred the countryside, where the trees grew in a semi-wild state, to the formal gardens that had impressed his eighteenth-century predecessors, and he also seems to have had a fondness for trees useful to mankind, such as fruit or nut trees.
Later in life, on seeing Corfu again, he made this note in his diary: “the loved olive … No wonder the Olive is undrawn – unknown: so inaccessible = poetical = difficult are its belongings.” In an oil painting, Corfu From Ascension he juxtaposes an olive grove with snow-capped mountains in the distance and ruins in the foreground. There are some goats near the ruins, but the olive trees seem even more alive than the animals, their trunks swaying like the movements of graceful dancers.
Francis Danby, Children by a Brook, c.1822. Yale Center for British Art.
Francis Danby exhibited a painting, Clearing up after a Summer Shower, at the Royal Academy in London in 1822. The painting is now lost, but we know about it from a description by Richard Redgrave, who drew attention to “a group of chestnuts and other trees, their wetted leaves coming like emeralds off the dark cloud.” Leaves “like emeralds” also appear in Danby’s charming painting of Children by a Brook. I believe these are the large leaves of the sweet or Spanish chestnut, made semi-transparent by the strong sunlight shining through them.
The artists of the first half of the nineteenth century loved the contrast between brilliant sunshine and deep shadows in the woods, especially the beech woods of southern England. Picnics in the woods were a favourite form of relaxation, especially in the hot days of June and July. Bristol artists went to Leigh Woods, the other side of the river Avon from the city, to relax, read, play music and make sketches.
Danby’s friend, the artist Edward Villiers Rippingille wrote a letter to the poet John Clare, in the summer of 1824, which specifically mentions this contrast between deep shadow and brilliant sunlight in the woods. He encourages Clare to come and see the Bristol trees, water and woods in the sunshine: “see branches of the most luxuriant foliage hanging over the river as bright as a diamond forming the darkest recesses and hollows of the richest colours, the brown earth mixing with the endless varieties of greens produced from reflections and from the sun shining through broad sheets of leaves …”
Ancient trees continued to inspire artists. In the 1850s, the Pre-Raphaelites were painting landscapes out of doors in sunlight, trying to incorporate every detail they could see into their brightly-coloured canvases. William Henry Millais spent part of the summer of 1852 with his more famous brother John Everett, lodging at the George Inn in Bromley, Kent. While John Everett painted a courtship scene, The Proscribed Royalist, with its hero hiding in a hollow tree, his older brother was painting a portrait of an ancient pollarded oak tree.
The resulting oil painting, Hayes Common, is slightly smaller than Sandby’s Beech Tree. The artist has painstakingly traced the spread of the branches, with almost every leaf being given its distinctive shape. The gnarled and embossed trunk is equally carefully studied. Oaks were known for their longevity, and regarded as symbols of history and of national identity. William Henry Millais’s decision to include the little girl may have been an attempt to make the painting more saleable, but it also underlines the contrast between the human lifespan and that of the tree, which has seen centuries come and go.
Hayes Common was rejected by the Royal Academy – probably because the more conservative members of the Academy disliked the bright greens of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting – and William Henry Millais seems to have been discouraged. At any rate, he never painted anything so ambitious again.
William Henry Millais, Hayes Common, 1852-3. Oil on canvas. Yale Center for British Art
For the last five years, I have been engaged in research for a book on trees in British art, asking questions, such as: how does the interest in trees develop, how do ideas change over the 18th and 19th centuries? I've been looking at drawing manuals, illustrated books on trees, oil paintings, watercolours and prints, landscape gardening, poetry, artists' writings. The artists I'm particularly interested in include the following: Paul Sandby, Thomas Hearne, John Constable, Samuel Palmer, James Ward, John Martin, Edward Lear, Francis Danby, Jacob George Strutt and Henry William Burgess.