British artists have long been fascinated by trees. It goes without saying that trees are important in landscape painting, but some artists are satisfied with a generic tree: a trunk and branches, some rough brushstrokes for foliage, enough to suggest the idea of a tree without bothering to define it as oak, or ash, or beech. But in the years around 1800 many books were published on the characters of trees – that is, on the different species. Writers argued over the respective aesthetic merits of different trees: was the oak the most beautiful tree? Or the beech? Was the horse chestnut in flower a fine, or a disagreeable sight?
The eighteenth-century watercolourist Paul Sandby painted many types of trees, but his favourite was surely the beech, the most common tree in the woodlands of southern England. In the 1760s he was given a commission, to paint a series of watercolours of the trees in Luton Park, Bedfordshire. Now part of the Luton Hoo Hotel, it still has a magnificent beech-lined drive. Sandby went on painting beech trees all his life. His Ancient Beech Tree is a large painting in watercolour and bodycolour, in a gold frame. The painting is a portrait of a specific tree: its strong personality dominates the composition, and it dwarfs the human beings and animals around its base.
You can see that Sandby loved drawing the muscular branches that reach out in all directions like arms, twisting and turning as if in movement, the exposed roots that cling to the ground, and the feathery foliage that leaves the trunk and branches exposed. Because of its smooth bark, drawing a beech tree is perhaps the closest analogy, in the tree world, to drawing the human figure.