In 1818 Constable exhibited a beautiful drawing of elm trees at the Royal Academy. It failed to sell and so it was still in Constable’s possession two decades later, when he added a note on the back to the effect that “This noble Elm … was blown down April 1835.” It was a portrait, in other words, of a particular tree, one whose fortunes he continued to follow, and whose eventual loss he lamented long after he’d moved away from the area.
“I have done some studies … particularly a natural (but highly Elegant) group of trees, Ashes, Elms, and Oaks etc which will be of quite as much service to me as if I had bought the field and Hedge Row, which contains them, and perhaps one time or another will fetch as much for my children.”
This is presumed to be the painting Constable showed at the Royal Academy in 1822, entitled “A Study of Trees from Nature.” This work, too, failed to find a buyer.
This large drawing of an ash tree was used to illustrate one of the lectures Constable gave on landscape painting in the 1830s. He told the story of an ash tree at Hampstead:
“Many of my Hampstead friends may remember this young lady at the entrance to the village. Her fate was distressing, for it is scarcely too much to say that she died of a broken heart. I made this drawing when she was in full health and beauty; on passing some time afterwards, I saw, to my grief, that a wretched board had been nailed to her side, on which was written in large letters, ‘All vagrants and beggars will be dealt with according to law.’ The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace, for even then some of the top branches had withered. Two long spike nails had been driven into her side. In another year one half became paralysed, and not long after the other shared the same fate, and this beautiful creature was cut down to a stump, just high enough to hold the board.”
Clearly, Constable was appalled at the insensitivity with which the tree had been treated. But he also seems to be saying that a society which has no love for trees also has no love for human beings – such as the poor woman and child sitting at its feet, one of the “beggars and vagrants” who will be “dealt with according to law.”
Strutt Sylva Britannica: The Beggar’s Oak
A friend who shared Constable’s love of trees was Jacob George Strutt, the etcher. In the 1820s Strutt was publishing his great book on ancient trees, illustrated by his etchings, Sylva Britannica. He and Constable saw a lot of each other in the 1820s, and Constable was one of the subscribers to the volume.
Strutt describes trees as “silent witnesses of the successive generations of men, to whose destiny they bear so touching a resemblance, alike in their budding, their prime, and their decay.” Constable would certainly have shared these sentiments.
This example is the Beggar’s Oak, near Lichfield – a tree that got its name because beggars would sit on its spreading roots to shelter from the rain – an interesting contrast to Constable’s mutilated and uncharitable tree at Hampstead.