If You Go Down to the Woods Today

Exhibition essay produced for Arboretum: The Art of Trees – The Arborealists and other Artists, at RWA, 2014. The essay can be downloaded as a PDF here here.

‘Trees, like ruins, embody history’.1 Beneath the shade and shelter of towering trunks, amidst gnarled roots and leafy canopies, Arboretum records the passing of time.

Whether painted in-situ within quiet parklands; battling the wind upon blustering cliff tops, or in the artist’s studio, perceived through the filters of memory, imagination or the photographic frame, almost all the works here are haunted by ghosts – from Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) to Paul Nash (1889-1946) – acknowledging the enduring presence of the tree in art.

The passing of time is highlighted in the loyal depiction of one solitary Lime Tree followed by John Blandy over a series of months, and through Celia de Serra’s fallen heroes, “the last remaining sentries”, still guarding the ground after twenty-five long years. Awareness of trees’ stoic presence begins in childhood, where ‘the woods are lovely, dark and deep’, harbouring secret paths and woodland shelters. Dan Hays recalls his own youth, remembering how “the boughs of the ‘swinging tree’ swayed like a bucking bronco. Materials for bows and arrows were researched and tested. Dens were constructed.” Kurt Jackson’s scored and scratched depictions of Skewjack in West Cornwall and the rich forest interior of Ashcombe in Bath are also intricately layered with childhood memories of summers spent exploring the squirrel and jay filled oak woodlands of Hertfordshire.

Yet, this notion of trees and woodland as a place of safety – an arbour for innocence – is often tainted by fear and foreboding: the fairytale boughs and branches become the haunting arms of nightmares. Here, trees are caught between fact and fiction, the real and the imagined, the past and the present: trees act as thresholds, and woods and forests are liminal spaces. In Lisa Wright’s shadowy apparition a naked child lingers at the stump of a tree, stuck between pre- pubescence and adolescence, from a series fittingly titled Twilight.

Trees also act as an anchor, physically grounding us in time and space, as their gnarled roots spread and tangle, intermingling with the ground beneath. Fiona Hingston reminds us of this with her muted forest tapestry which has been dragged from the earth in soil and charcoal. In Arboretum this specificity of medium also takes on a new significance highlighted by the inclusion of preparatory studies, materials and tools. It emphasises the constant reference to layers and patterning throughout the work, such as Hannah Maybank’s textured surfaces constructed of delicate layers of paint over latex, built up in stratum like the coiled concentric circles that lie beneath the brittle bark of a tree. These seductive layers of peeling paint are suggestive of a vast history entombed beneath “wrapping the picture up to produce its own rings of a tree”.

This ‘inner life’ of trees, so often exposed by the human hand, draws attention to mans’ relationship with these ancient sentinels, intertwining the romantic tradition in art alongside current ecological issues. Julian Perry’s Three Pollards portrays experimental forestry work that reprises the practice of pollarding, which ended with the coding of the forest as a public space in 1878. Other traces of man’s influence exist in Jemma Appleby’s disquieting forest landscape, which is interrupted by Usonian-inspired architecture, creating an image of somewhere removed – an otherworldly landscape that cannot exist.

From the pastoral tradition to 1930s futurism, over centuries the tree has come to represent a symbol of the British landscape and our national character – inscribed with human qualities, they are anthropomorphised to create a metaphor for man. Arboretum presents these treescapes, whether real, remembered or imagined, combining folklore and fairytale, fact and fiction, past and present. Here, amidst the arboreal arms of history, time passes, yet trees remain, proud as a sentinel, our ancient protectors.

 

1 Craven, Tim, ‘A Short and selective survey of the tree in (mainly British) art history’ in Under the Greenwood: Picturing the British Tree from Constable to Kurt Jackson (Bristol: Sansom and Co, 2013), page 12

Image Credit: Installation shot featuring Disclosure, Hannah Maybank; Diptych, Fiona Higson; and Rosenbaum, Jemma Appleby. Photograph © Gemma Brace.

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