Asher Brown Durand, Kindred Spirits (1849). Oil on canvas, 116.8 x 91.4 cm. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas
This painting really sums up the themes of my current research project on American art and literature. Its title comes from an English poet, John Keats. The two men in the painting are an artist, Thomas Cole, and a writer, William Cullen Bryant. They are drawn together by their shared love of the wilderness - and its trees. The artists and writers I've chosen to research - Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederic Church, Henry David Thoreau, William James Stillman and Albert Bierstadt - loved trees and referred to their 'spirits'. It was not uncommon, too, for writers to use phrases like 'the spirit of the wilderness'. The consciousness of native American culture - or an avoidance of it - resonates through much of their artistic and literary production. There are also many fascinating connections between American and English culture in the period. So the phrase 'kindred spirits' has multiple different layers of meaning. I guess that I also feel myself a kindred spirit to those men - though theirs is very much a man's world of settlers and explorers, in which women play a subordinate role. I love reading about their exploits in the woods - sleeping in makeshift shelters on beds made of balsam fir, spending weeks at a time drawing trees until the snow drives them back to the town. I probably wouldn't last five minutes in the harsh conditions in which they worked! But I do admire them for it. And I think there is great beauty and interest in the products of their labours.
I thought British artists like John Constable and Samuel Palmer were great tree lovers, but the Americans were even more enthusiastic. Thomas Cole (1801-1848) wrote a long poem, 'The Complaint of the Forest' in which the American forest trees speak out against the deforestation that was accompanying new settlements, railroads and industrialisation in his lifetime. The trees address the artist like this:
Mortal, whose love for our umbrageous realms
Exceeds the love of all the race of men;
Whom we have loved; and for whom have spread
With welcome our innumerable arms
In other words, Cole claims that he has loved trees more than anyone else, and the trees have loved him back!
His friend Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886) was another tree lover - the collections of the New-York Historical Society included hundreds of drawings and paintings of trees by him. They have an excellent website with high quality images, easy to search. I'm particularly intrigued by the large and very beautiful tree drawings he made in the early 1860s, and which he never exhibited or sold.
A friend of Durand, quoted by John Durand in his biography of his father, has the artist express his motives like this:
What a relief it was to be able to stand for an hour before some fine tree, in direct sympathy with it! I had done so when a boy, on long summer days, and now, when a man, I had a higher appreciation of it than ever, and enjoyed it all the more - the great happiness of standing face to face with nature!
Illustration: Asher Brown Durand, Early Morning at Cold Spring (1850). Montclair Art Museum.
This famous couple, Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews (painted by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1748) are showing off their fine clothes, up-to-date land management, and (in Robert's case) sporting prowess (Mrs A may be meant to have a dead pheasant on her lap). The oak tree behind them would have been useful for the Royal Navy - but the Andrewses never harvested it, and it still survives today as the 'Auberies Oak'. It probably signifies the longevity of a family that owns the same estate over many generations.
The younger oaks to the right hint at a 'family tree' and the children they might expect to have.
In Room 35, there are several portraits of landowners, and just about all of them are shown against oak trees.
George Stubbs painted the Melbourne and Milbanke Families, c. 1769, against a very ancient oak. The painting records the marriage of Elizabeth Milbanke (extreme left) to Peniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne. (extreme right). Between the couple are Elizabeth's father and brother.
Looking at the painting, you might assume that the Milbankes had this oak on their land - therefore they must have been there for many generations. But Stubbs used the same tree in a portrait of the Pocklington family! So did he have a drawing of an actual tree that he had seen, and use it as a kind of studio prop?
This tree could be several hundred years old. It fits beautifully into the composition, sheltering and embracing the family and its newest member.
Meindert Hobbema, Avenue at Middleharnis, 1689
Hobbema’s Avenue is probably the most famous painting of trees in the entire collection. Imagine it without the trees – it would be quite unremarkable. But with them, it is unique – there isn’t another painting like it.
What I have always wanted to know is, firstly, what kind of trees are they, and, secondly, would they really have looked like that?
Some think they are alders, but the most common opinion is that they are poplars. And it seems that trees really were trained to grow like this – and still are – with their side branches being lopped off so that they grow fast and straight. On the right we can see a nurseryman raising smaller versions of them, taking off the side shoots as they grow.
Sir Walter Scott, the novelist, who saw the painting in Scotland in 1829, evidently thought the trees were accurate. He described it as “a middle sized landscape with a view of a Dutch road with two ditches specially well painted and two side rows of trees nipd and punchd and pruned up to the very top giving you a most perfect idea of the originals and thereby making a planters very skin creep.”
Scott had a country estate himself, at Abbotsford, so he was himself a “planter” of trees. Did this picture make his flesh creep just because it was so true to life, I wonder, or was he also shocked by the treatment of the trees?
Do Hobbema’s trees suggest an analogy with human life? We have baby trees on the right, slightly older trees next to them, and then the tall trees of the avenue, which look as if they won’t live much longer. They are frail and bent, like old men. Like Paul Nash in the 20th century, perhaps Hobbema also felt that trees were people.
Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Man washing his Feet at a Fountain, c. 1648
This painting fascinates me because of the detail on the tree in the centre –
It looks as if a sword and scabbard have been hung on the tree above a sculpture of a saint, raising his hand in blessing. The sculpture is protected from the weather by a canopy, and beneath the tree is a man lying on the ground, with something silvery in front of him and what looks like cut flowers beside him.
All this suggests to me that trees in the Roman campagna were sometimes made into shrines, and that pilgrims made offerings to them – an indication of pagan tree worship surviving into Christian times. The man in front of the tree might be an old soldier who has retired from active service.
This painting once belonged to Sir George Beaumont, who was a friend of John Constable and had an important collection of landscape paintings, which he gave to the National Gallery. Constable wrote of this painting that it was “full of religious and moral feeling”. I would love to know what he thought about the shrine on the tree!
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.
From c. 2010-2017, I was 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 looked at drawing manuals, illustrated books on trees, oil paintings, watercolours and prints, landscape gardening, poetry, artists' writings. The artists I found most important and/or interesting included 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.