Trees have always played a very important role in my life, ever since I learned to love all the diversity of tropical trees in East Africa. Baobabs, flame trees, jacarandas, grevilleas, mvule or African teak, thorn trees, and on and on. I was taught that all these trees were absolutely vital, for habitat, to help prevent erosion, promote moisture retention, enrich the soil and generally to enhance the world for allother species! In other words, trees are worthy of deep respect and merit great care. Artists have been some of the greatest admirers of trees. From early times, artists have drawn them, as portraits or in preparatory studies for paintings. Trees inhabit the frescoes in Egyptian tombs, they grace Chinese and Japanese scrolls, they are celebrated in Middle Eastern art. They have also always fascinated European artists who have created innumerable studies of them. As artist-theorist William Gilpin (1724-1804) wrote in in a treatise directed at Romantic artists and writers, Remarks on Forest Scenery and other Woodland Views, "It is no exaggerated praise to call a tree the grandest and most beautiful of all the productions of the earth."
Drawing a tree is an interesting exercise. Sorting out the composition, the tree's place in space and landscape, the play of light and shade, the complexity of leaves and the characteristics of each particular tree's habit of growth - it is very good observational training for any artist. You need to look hard and often! Drawing an individual tree is exactly the same as producing a person's portrait; it requires the same reverence and psychological acuity. No matter the approach to the tree's drawing - directly from nature, imagined, whether freighted with symbolism poetic or political, or just drawn in a down-to-earth, factual manner, it is still quite an undertaking.
I was reminded of all these considerations when I happened on a wonderful small exhibition, "Regarding Trees" at the Courtauld in Somerset House, London. The very first drawing I saw augured well for the show: it was one of the earliest known European drawings of a tree, apparently produced for its own sake rather than for the background of any scene. It was drawn in pen and ink, in about 1504 by the Dominican monk, Fra Bartolomeo - A Tree in Winter. His delight in nature was evident and apparently stemmed from St. Francis' teachings that beauty of nature should be regarded as evidence of the love of God for us all. A tree in winter suggests a promise of rebirth, and thus could have had extra significance for this pious artist.
Many of the drawings were in pen and ink with washes, and some, such as Alexander Cozens' Blasted Tree in a Landscape (c. 1780), were meant to symbolise awe and fear of the sublime.
Another pen and ink drawing, by Jean-Jacques Boissieu, evoked the implications of different ages of human beings by drawing three trees together, as had done Rembrandt in his famous etching of The Three Trees.Three Trees in a Wood was drawn in 1799, a wonderfully grandiose study of trees in varying stages of health. Alas, I could only find another of his images, one of similar power, a single tree.
Claude Lorrain was one of the first artists to advocate a dedicated practice of drawing from nature, and paying careful, sensitive attention to the surroundings. A Clump of Trees (1660) in black chalk and washes did just that.
Constable was another artist who worked tirelessly outdoors and his depictions of trees were always remarkable.
By the 17th century, most European artists had realised that understanding trees and their characteristics lent veracity to their work. Other drawings were such exact portraits of trees that they can still be recognised if they still stand; Thomas Hearne's watercolour, The Chestnut Tree at Little Wymondley, Hertfordshire (1789) is such that we know the tree still exists and is flourishing!
All my own drawings of trees, silverpoints for the most part, were suddenly confirmed by this show as being worthwhile exercices for me as an artist. They reaffirm my love of trees - an endless delight as I see mighty trees in my travels.