Trees in Art

by maggie

I’m sitting in Green Park (as I write this), it’s 20:30 and I’m just about to have an M&S sandwich for supper. It’s times like this I realize just how sheltered my life is…
In amongst all the French revolutionary politics and nature writing in Waterstones Picadilli I came across a book – Under the Green Wood – Picturing the British Tree From Constable to Kurt Jackson. [There’s an exhibition too.] It was the cover that sold it to me and of course it had to come home with me.
Green park is famously boring and green, which means it’s full of trees and rather threadbare grass. Most of the trees are plains, but there are some tufty things in the distance to provide some year round interest.

Trees in art; trees in my art…
There have always been trees in my world – mature oaks at the bottom of the gardens; a great green wall in summer, a netted veil in winter, pale green and red in spring. Looking out of the bedroom window as a child, there were faces to be made in the foliage and silhouetted against the sky. We had of course trees in the garden too, apples and pears and hollies, mostly ancient and geriatric, survivors of another time.
I first became aware of trees as art (Rather than an element in a larger composition.) in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. Among the stranded wonders of early 20th century European art was a Signac. A cedar perhaps from the Mediterranean coast – dark foliage across a nude canvas, the top most branches catching the last of the evening sun. You could almost feel the heat of the day and the scent of the land. I’ve never seen it again. On a return visit it was replaced by a misty early morning version with a car parked beneath it’s bulk. I’ve not been able to find it on the internet either – but perhaps when Moscow’s museums are dragged screaming into the 21st century…

Often trees exist in plural, here in the park they form a boarder with the rest of Picadilli on one side and the far horizon of a tangential avenue on the other. They provide horizontal weight, vertical detailing in the rhythm of the trunks and endless textural detail in foliage; but no real character. But then who is looking for character in a London park?
The trees that have the most influence over my life today are a pair of sycamores that are growing in the gardens at the bottom of my garden. They are ugly, dusty and tall. They cut out the afternoon and evening sun and create a rain shadow for the poor garden. They aren’t nice trees but they are important.
The places where I go and look, either have no trees, – sheep shorn mountains or wave ravaged beaches – or far too many, – Sussex. The symbolism of the solitary tree has passed me by. I have not stopped to ponder on it’s heroic and entirely metaphorical battle with time and, or the elements. Perhaps that is because I do not see a tree (or trees) in that way. It is details that catch my attention – the colours in a spray of foliage against sky or shadow, or at the other end of the scale the abstraction of landscape to a progression of planes and tints.

I appreciate the multitude of representations possible of a tree (or trees) in a well composed image. No doubt by the time I’ve finished reading all the essays in my new book, i’ll understand the ideal of the British Tree a little better. However I’m still not certain where the Tree fits in my Art.


as i wrote this post I went back over some of my old sketch books to see whether my thesis was born out: evidence here. whether it’s a good idea to look back at old sketch books is another discussion.