It is wonderful when a passion – such as mine for art – can be combined with other important issues in a tightly relevant fashion. I have increasingly been trying to link my art to other concerns: poetry, the environment, the future of different species. A group of French poets, for instance, is composing poems about a series of metalpoint drawings I have prepared for an exhibition, “Terratorium“, Musée-Galerie Carnot, Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, in northern Burgundy, for next year.
For the past few months, I have been focusing on another passion of mine, a love of oak trees, of all kinds - live oaks, cork oaks, holm oaks, and especially the amazing oaks that are the essence of the British Isles. They have been the subject of many of my metalpoint drawings, as I prepare an exhibition for September 2019 in the Great Chamber at Haddon Hall, the wonderful fortified medieval manor house near Bakewell, Derbyshire, northern England. Present-day Haddon dates from the 12th century, with additions and alternations between the 13th and 17th centuries.
Nestled amongst mighty trees on a slope above the clear rippling waters of the Wye River, Haddon Hall is within the Peak District National Park. The beautiful Elizabethan terraced gardens lead to sloping green pastures dotted with ashes, beeches, sycamores and especially huge oak trees. So it was natural that oak trees and matters pertaining to them become a fascination for me as I sought to find unusual ways of focusing on them in art.
The Tudor home itself is a celebration of oak – panelling, wide beams and floor boards, furniture, tapestries that feature oak trees and foliage. Everywhere you turn there is another beautiful sight created by some form of oak. So as I wandered and marvelled, I felt that the only way I could decide what to portray in a metalpoint drawing was to allow the entire place to speak to me and tell me what to draw.
The only other certainty in my mind has been that next year’s exhibition should ideally serve as a platform for people to see aspects and details of oaks that are portrayed perhaps in a new light – all with an objective of celebrating oaks and ensuring that they have a healthy, long future in this part of the world. Lovely to have the opportunity to combine these interests and passions, especially with a tree that came to Britain about 7000 BC in the post-Ice Age era, or even earlier, and has been in known use for the past 4000 years. The best-known variety is the Quercus robur but in the north, there are also sessile oaks, Quercus petraea. Oaks can live for 1000 years. They only start to produce acorns after the age of forty, so co-existing with oaks implies, ideally, many human generations of stewards, an aspect which I find inspiring, heart-warming and also sobering, given our present world.
In a way, in Europe and North America today, we come late to the esteem of oak trees for they were already considered sacred to Zeus in ancient Greek times, and Pliny the Elder explained their sacredness in Roman eyes to the Gauls, the early French. Historically, oaks have been used for every aspect of human life. House building (as Haddon Hall so wonderfully demonstrates), acorns to feed the pigs, timbers for ship building, tools, furniture and farm vehicles, pit props for mines and sleepers for railways, firewood and charcoal for smelting in the Industrial Revolution’s first foundries, wood for wine barrels and even drums, tannin for leather preparation, wood from which medicines are extracted, ink for writing since earliest times from the galls that grow on oaks. They give humans and animals food and shelter; they sustain life for innumerable species of animal, bird, insect, reptile and also, so important, the mycorrhizal fungi that live in symbiosis with the oak tree’s roots (also think truffles in some oak species!). These majestic trees, from the Quercus genus (in the Beech family), with some 600 species worldwide, also provide mulch and even fulvic acid from its decaying leaves that finds its way to the oceans and helps make iron available to be taken up by phytoplankton. Their well-being in turn sustains other sea-dwelling creatures for a healthy sea environment.
With such a list of amazing uses and roles in our lives over the centuries, it is frankly astounding to realise how cavalier and thoughtless we humans have been over their stewardship. Our arrogance and/or ignorance has led to the oaks being under threat of extinction in parts of the world and in most other places, their survival is often under menace of disease, eradication or just plain neglect.
As I drew the huge and wonderful oaks at Haddon Hall, concentrating on their bark, their leaves, their grain as the actual trees are so enormous that I boggled at the thought of trying to contain them even on a big sheet of drawing paper, I was also learning of such a wonderfully hopeful “life vest” being thrown to British oaks.
At another large estate in West Sussex, south England, Knepp, a pioneering venture has been underway for the last ten odd years. The oaks were the trigger to a whole new way of thinking that pushed the owners of these marginal agricultural lands to abandon traditional farming and gradually (with many bureaucratic obstacles from government departments) allow the land to revert to what it probably was a thousand or more years ago. Oak trees, for instance, have great difficulty germinating and growing in “traditional” English woods (of which there are precious few remaining). Thus the Burrells, owners of the estate, introduced browsing animals (species as near the original animals that roamed early Britain as possible in today’s world) to the ever-diversifying bushes and trees that have sprung up in their lands which have been mostly left without any human interference. Once again, thanks to these animals opening up the woods and also to the jays who assiduously plant acorns, (some of which get eaten, and some sprout), oaks are thriving at Knepp. As are other endangered or virtually extinct species.
Learning about Knepp was a wonderful additional incentive for me to keep drawing and working towards next September’s exhibition at Haddon Hall, Bakewell. I will keep you posted on “Oak Matters: Metalpoint Drawings and Early English Carvings”.