Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art, 1760-1870, by Christiana Payne, Sansom & Company, 192 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1911408123
It was a bright summer day. We trudged to Seathwaite, a hamlet in the Borrowdale valley in the English Lake District. The Old Scandinavian name, Seathwaite, means “sedge clearing”. There the River Derwent babbled in its infancy. But it was not for those sedges that “breath[e] near the breezy streamlet’s edge” that we went.
We crossed a wooden bridge, guided by three not-quite-fearless Herdwick sheep along a craggy path above the beck. The murmur of the Derwent blended with the crisp susurration of the summer-drying bracken. Our newly-shorn guides were soon out of sight. We found ourselves climbing, stumbling, winding upwards. And then, a long mile from the farm-cottages, the bridge and the sweet smell of hay in the valley-bottom fields, we came across an enclosure of deer-proof pig-wire, impenetrable except through a kissing-gate. We entered. And there they were: “those fraternal four of Borrowdale” in Wordsworth’s poem “Yew-trees”. One had fallen (but there was a replacement sapling). The remaining three stood still, and the silence was profound.
The poem was probably begun in the autumn of 1804, when Wordsworth visited another famous yew, “the pride of Lorton Vale”, a “solitary tree” which “stands single in the midst / Of its own darkness”. In Wordsworth’s words, the Borrowdale yews, “worthier still of note”, have trunks of “intertwisted fibres serpentine / Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved”. These are strenuous lines: to read them aloud is to feel the primordial energy of the yews’ growth. A sequence of heavily accented, emphatically aspirated consonants jostle with one another, even while the rhythm imparts a sense of order. The lines imitate the physicality of the trees themselves, which are shaped by both the accidents and the inherent logic of time, of the environment and of their own life force.
The brother-yews give access to an allegorical vision. Theirs was
a pillared shade
Upon whose grassless floor of red-brown hue,
By sheddings from the pining umbrage tinged
Perennially – beneath whose sable roof
Of boughs as if for festal purpose decked
With unrejoicing berries, Ghostly Shapes
May meet at noontide – Fear and trembling Hope,
Silence and Foresight – Death the Skeleton
And Time the Shadow, there to celebrate
As in a natural Temple scattered o’er
With altars undisturbed of mossy stone,
United worship, or in mute repose
To lie, and listen to the mountain flood
Murmuring from Glaramara’s inmost caves.
Wordsworth is alluding to a special tree in Milton’s Eden: the Indian fig, or banyan, with whose leaves Adam and Eve cover their nakedness. If Milton’s banyan, which casts a “pillared shade / High overarched”, is connected with man’s post-lapsarian state, Wordsworth’s yews enclose another “pillared” space where our earthly fears and hopes – our post-Edenic subjugation to death and time – are almost sanctified. Recalling the Danse Macabre (such as that in the chancel of Northumberland’s Hexham Abbey, which he very likely knew), Wordsworth envisions the Dance of Death under the yews – trees long associated with places of worship, and with our mortality. Pervading the scene is a sombre, “unrejoicing” but nevertheless richly resonant silence. Far from breaking the silence, the sound of the stream contributes to it. Even today, that silence is still startling.
In a manuscript fragment probably dating from 1800 and now known as “Lennox, Mary, and the Spreading Yew”, Wordsworth had tentatively explored the emotional impact of arboreal silence. The presence of a “eugh-tree” “lur’d astray” the pencil in Mary’s hand. To Mary’s ear, the “recollection of this darling tree / Was as a perfect silence”. The tree’s influence was felt most deeply in liminal moments:
Was but a general sense of happiness,
And many a waking thought of this dear tree
At night would slip between her and her [?dream]
And send her back into a dream [?again].
Two hundred years later, and having sat inside the hollow trunk of one of the “fraternal four”, briefly yielding our all-too-transient existence to the Deep Time of the tree, we left Seathwaite in silence, under the still-blazing sun. Mortality was a lesson. But so were origins: the origins of time and life figured through the origins of the River Derwent in “Glaramara’s inmost caves”, just as the “sacred river” in the imaginary world of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” runs through “caverns measureless to man”.
If words can capture the peculiar shapes of trees as they appear both to our eyes and to our minds, what about drawings and paintings? Visuality is the artist’s strength, especially when it comes to physical objects such as trees. In most cases, pictorial art is more obviously mediated than poetry is, for it has to engage with physicality, grapple with the varying textures, densities and shapes of tangible media, as well as the unique propensities of each available painterly tool. But like pigments, words also have physical qualities. The texture of sound can establish a relevance, and sometimes a tension, between mental visions and the sensuous world. Ekphrasis, that ancient literary device, enriches or alters our perceptions of the meanings of words by manipulating the changeful contours of syntax to represent visible reality. Just as words can strive to be physical, so pictorial media can also aim for both visionary insights and visual verisimilitude.
For both writers and painters, there is a perennial struggle between generality and particularity, abstraction and substantiality, ideals and accidents, universality and localness. Composition entails equilibrium, and for some, trees offer a valuable lesson in this regard. In 1842, John Ruskin was drawing an aspen tree in Fontainebleau. As he drew, the “beautiful lines” of the tree “insisted on being traced”. “With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they ‘composed’ themselves, by finer laws than any known of men.” To compose is to discern “laws” and to make sense of the apparent haphazardness of the world. For Ruskin, and for Wordsworth, nature itself had a composing power analogous – and conducive – to that of the artist and the writer. In his long poem The Excursion (1814), Wordsworth had paid tribute to a “tall Pine-tree” that “Murmurs” at “the touch of every wandering breeze”. That, he wrote, is a “composing sound”. The composure of the mind makes possible the composition of art and poetry, and this is a lesson learned from trees, or as The Prelude has it, from rivers: the “steady cadence” of the River Derwent had “composed” the young Wordsworth’s “thoughts / To more than infant softness”.
In recent years there have been numerous cherishable books on trees in art and literature, including Fiona Stafford’s The Long, Long Life of Trees (2016) and Charles Watkins’s Trees in Art (2018). Christiana Payne’s Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art, 1760-1870 was published in 2017 to coincide with the launch of the Charter for Trees, Woods and People. It differs from other similarly accessible and informative books in charting the development of trees as an artistic motif during a crucial period when their significance was heightened by wars, industrialisation and the concomitant need for wood, as much as by shifting aesthetic tastes, advances in science, burgeoning domestic tourism and expanding colonial enterprises.
Payne considers trees in patrician culture: the beeches in Paul Sandby’s drawings of Lord Bute’s Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire and the oaks in Thomas Hearne’s watercolours of Richard Payne Knight’s Downton estate on the Welsh borders. Within this culture of paternalism, Payne also looks at the political implications of Gainsborough’s and Morland’s cottage-door paintings, which elucidate the symbiotic relationship between cottage life and trees (especially oaks and beeches). As parklands and woodlands became increasingly accessible in the nineteenth century, we see painters revelling in the “chequer’d shade” of British woods: John Linnell in Windsor Forest, Francis Danby in Leigh Woods, John Martin in Richmond Park and Thomas Creswick in Burnham Beeches, among others.
The period Payne covers also witnessed an abundance of drawing manuals focusing on trees, such as Alexander Cozens’s The Shape, Skeleton and Foliage of 32 Species of Trees (1771), JD Harding’s Elementary Art (1807) and Edward Kennion’s An Essay on Trees in Landscape (1815). These manuals blazed a trail alongside botanical science, and, as Payne shows, they recognised the need to “grasp the ‘characters’ of particular types of tree”. The “anatomy” of trees became a vital artistic preoccupation.
In addition to drawing manuals, there were sets of prints and illustrated books that gathered together detailed views of trees: JG Strutt’s etchings in Sylva Britannica (1822), HW Burgess’s lithographs Eidodendron (1827) and JC Loudon’s eight-volume Arboretum et Fructitem Britannicum (1838) with six hundred “portraits” of trees. On a more local scale, artists such as William Green of Ambleside were also celebrating special trees in places that were fast becoming tourist attractions.
Publications such as Sylva Britannica and William Gilpin’s Remarks on Forest Scenery (1791) provided “biographies” of trees across Britain. Paintings of named trees were exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere. In this context, many trees, as Payne vividly shows, attained a celebrity status in Britain, such as the Greendale Oak, which was given pride of place in Alexander Hunter’s 1776 edition of John Evelyn’s Silva, and the Swilcar Oak, which appeared in Francis Mundy’s poem Needwoord Forest (1776), as well as in later illustrated books.
While traditional British trees – oaks, beeches, ashes and elms – were taking root in the works of John Constable, John Glover, James Ward and William Henry Hunt, exotic trees were imported into the Chelsea Physic Garden, Kew, landscape gardens and arboretums. Painters like William Hodges, Thomas and William Daniell and Edward Lear travelled abroad to depict the banyans of India, the coconut palms of the Pacific, the stone pines and cypresses of Italy and the larches and Norway spruces of Switzerland. Foreign trees thrived in the imaginary landscapes of JMW Turner and John Martin.
Exploring these varied themes throughout her fascinating study, Payne pays close attention to issues involved in tree painting, especially “the tension between the general and the particular”. She observes:
Sir Joshua Reynolds and Joseph Holden Pott in the later eighteenth century, and John Claudius Loudon and J. D. Harding in the 1830s, all cautioned against trying to show individual leaves and their distinctive shapes. On the other hand, there was a strong movement in favour of discriminating between the characters of different species of trees.
Abstraction was a sensitive issue in eighteenth and early nineteenth century art and literature. Art for the educated classes, according to Reynoldsian theorists, should be addressed to the intellect through abstraction and generality. Minute details of a mundane kind – often associated with Dutch painters – bespoke working class or female sensibilities. The French Revolution added a new layer of complexity to these debates: Edmund Burke and his counter-revolutionary followers associated abstraction with French revolutionary ideals, and intricate realities with the British constitution. Within this larger context, artists and writers sought to find their way between generality and particularity. Among the many painters that feature in Payne’s book, Wordsworth’s near-contemporary Samuel Palmer is an interesting case. For Palmer, “Truth in art seems . . . to stand at a fixed centre, midway between its two antagonists Fact and Phantasm.”
This was an insight derived from his encounters with trees in childhood. Here Palmer shares a kinship with Wordsworth. As a child, the poet had wondered at the “dream-like vividness & splendour which invest objects of sight”. The world around him – including “a Tree, of many one” – had seemed so “immaterial” that it was necessary to prove its palpability: “Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality”. In later years, these visionary experiences continued to haunt his creative consciousness. Palmer would have sympathised, even though he was more struck by the “shadows” of trees, with all their suggestions of mortality and transcendence, than by the “visionary gleam” in Wordsworth’s ode on the “Intimations of Immortality”.
When Palmer was not yet four years old, he stood next to his beloved nurse Mary Ward, “watching the shadows on the wall from branches of elm behind which the moon had risen”. Ward “transferred and fixed the fleeting image” in his mind by reciting a couplet from Edward Young’s paraphrase of Job, thus infusing the mysterious shadows with a spiritual significance: “Vain man, the vision of a moment made, / Dream of a dream and shadow of a shade.” “I never forgot those shadows,” Palmer said, “and am often trying to paint them.”
Palmer was to become a great painter of trees that often cast, or are immersed in, dream-like shadows: we think of those accurately observed stone pines and cypresses drenched in the glowing half-lights of his later Italianate landscapes and also, more famously perhaps, those earlier visionary trees in the 1824 sketchbook, the Oxford sepias and the Shoreham watercolours. The eponymous tree in Pear Tree in a Walled Garden (c 1829) and that in In a Shoreham Garden (c 1829) are both heavily laden with blossoms – the former pure white, the latter white and pink – whose frothy exuberance pushes boldly towards the viewer. The fertile trees in The Magic Apple Tree (1830) and in Pastoral with a Hose-chestnut (c 1831-2) reside in twilight regions, between golden radiance and soulful darkness, while the shepherd and sheep that appear in both paintings furnish a religious undertone combined with associations of pastoral otium.
In all of these works, Palmer sought to represent the sylvan richness of Milton’s paradise, the “goodliest trees loaden with fairest fruit”:
Blossoms and fruits at once of golden hue
Appeared, with gay enamelled colours mixed:
On which the sun more glad impressed his beams
Than in fair evening cloud, or humid bow,
When God hath showered the earth . . .
Milton was a poet to whom Palmer turned again and again throughout his life. Mary Ward, to whom he owed “the first movement of poetic impulse”, bequeathed to him a copy of Milton, which he always treasured. But Palmer might also have been thinking of Wordsworth in depicting his visionary trees. In 1828, he quoted from one of the poet’s translations of Michelangelo’s sonnets when he made a remark that had a direct bearing on his tree paintings: “Terrestrial Spring showers blossoms and odours in profusion, which at some moments ‘Breathe on earth the air of Paradise’: indeed sometimes, when the spirits are in Heav’n, earth itself, as in emulation, bloom again into Eden.”
For both Wordsworth and Palmer, trees are at once particular and general. Locally rooted, they nevertheless embody humanity’s deepest yearnings. If their trees carry shadowy intimations of mortality, other artists of their time sought to visualise a paradisus deliciarum, whose evergreen trees are untouched by death. In his representations of Eden, the Celestial City and the Plains of Heaven, John Martin not only drew upon contemporary landscape gardening but also harked back to Milton’s description of Eden’s “Insuperable height of loftiest shade”, made up of “Cedar, and pine, and fir, and branching palm”. His tree images, particularly those in his mezzotint illustrations for Paradise Lost, were influential. In 1858, Edward Lear, another accomplished tree painter, was reminded of “Martin’s ideal pictures” when he saw the cedars of Lebanon, “those enormous old trees – a great dark grove – utterly silent, except the singing of birds in numbers”.
John Martin, who had published his Characters of Trees, in a Series of Seven Plates in 1817, was also adept at painting native trees. Most widely known today is his oil painting The Bard (1817), which is based on Thomas Gray’s poem of the same title. Martin portrays the Welsh bard, the sole survivor of his race, standing on Snowdon and cursing the conqueror Edward I before throwing himself into the River Conway. Though a small figure in the sublime landscape, the bard wields immense imaginative power. The writhing, weather-beaten oaks on the riverbank express his rage and anguish, mirroring his wild gestures. Like the trees, the bard seems to grow out of the massive rocks which his bodily shape resembles. Both the man and the oaks are products of their native land’s raw energy.
Trees like those in Martin’s The Bard were entrenched in British national consciousness. And it is these historical associations – apart from their more universal evocations of mortality, paradise and imaginary worlds – that give so much meaning to trees in art. In an early manuscript version of “Yew-trees”, Wordsworth mentions “Mona’s druid oaks”, (Mona is the Latin name for both Anglesey in Wales and the Isle of Man). A longstanding tradition, arising from Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, associates oaks with Druids, who, dressed in white, and in the light of the moon, used to climb the oak and cut the mistletoe growing on it with a golden sickle. In time, the Druidic oak’s native values merged into another powerful symbolism – the Royal Oak. The story of the future Charles II hiding in the Boscobel Oak after the Battle of Worcester in 1651 was universally known, being celebrated in influential cultural texts such as John Evelyn’s Sylva (1664). During the Williamite era, the oak was a controversial image due to its prominence in Jacobite iconography. William of Orange’s victory over the Stuarts was commemorated through the image of an orange tree overtopping a fallen oak. In the eighteenth century, however, the oak became less contentious. In “Rule, Britannia!” the poet James Thomson used it as a prime symbol of British patriotism:
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke:
As the loud blast that tears the Skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
Pub signs showing The Royal Oak were then and still are ubiquitous.
Tree images – oaks in particular – proliferated in British print culture during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and for decades afterwards. In “Yardley Oak”, William Cowper saw the eponymous tree as a repository of national history which embodied both Britain’s strength and its corrupt politics. Edmund Burke used oak images to validate his conception of the British constitution, pitting its immemorial growth against revolutionary France’s upstart regime. Even the advocate of “the Picturesque” William Gilpin included a verse in his Remarks on Forest Scenery where a “gallant oak”, about to answer the country’s call, memorialises his forebears during Druidic and Plantagenet times and encourages his scion to sacrifice himself too in “some future contest”.
Pictorial satires are not discussed in Payne’s book, but political cartoonists of the period, like James Gillray, frequently explored the rhetorical capacities of roots, grafts, leaves, branches, tree-planting and tree-felling, which were also being used by political speakers and writers as diverse as Wordsworth, John Thelwall, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Richard Watson (the bishop of Llandaff). Native oaks were contrasted with the Tree of Liberty, which had appeared in depictions of the American Revolution, but which was now propagated as a cosmopolitan symbol by the French Revolutionaries and their sympathisers. Other trees – including Java’s upas tree and America’s manchineel tree, as well as literary and biblical images – figured in the arboreal culture of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain. They could serve variously as rhetorical tropes in the struggles both for and against Catholic Emancipation and the Great Reform Act, although they could also be powerful images that stood on their own: the Wexford-born painter Francis Danby’s first success was an oil painting of The Upas Tree, inspired by Erasmus Darwin’s poem “The Loves of the Plants”, and shown at the Royal Institution in 1820.
When Wordsworth published his “Yew-trees” in 1815 then, he was responding to a well-established and still-flourishing cultural phenomenon. The roles of trees were being vigorously examined by artists and writers in various contexts and discourses: landscape gardening, estate management, religion, politics, botany, shipbuilding, architecture, industrial developments, antiquarian studies, domestic and foreign travels, colonial encounters, emblems and iconographies, popular aesthetic theories such as the Beautiful, the Sublime and the Picturesque, and many more contexts besides. Behind this cultural phenomenon was, perhaps, a fascination with trees that reaches back to primal, mythic times: Yggdrasill the universe-supporting ash in Norse mythology, the bodhi tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment, the tree of life in the Bible and the Quran . . .
The issue of generality and particularity emerges with striking clarity in an illustration Payne mentions in Silent Witnesses. I stumbled across the manuscript version of the illustration in the fabulous exhibition Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud in Abbot Hall, Kendal (July 12th to October 5th, 2019). Published in Volume 4 (1856) of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters, it shows six variously idealised aspens. Ruskin examines these six modes of idealisation against his own “unidealised” picture, which displays “the main ramifications of a real aspen”.
The “Ancient, or Giottesque” mode is characterised by “a love of nature, more or less interfered with by conventionalism and imperfect knowledge”. In another mediaeval mode, which Ruskin calls the “Purist”, we observe “the effort at imitation” “contending with the conventional type”. The “Turneresque” differs from the “flat” Purist tree in its “expression of lightness and confusion of foliage, and roundness of the tree as a mass” – “confusion” because Turner (Ruskin thinks) rightly avoids delineating “individual leaves”. On the other hand, the “Hardingesque” (referring to Ruskin’s drawing master JD Harding) begins to show “the faulty vagueness and carelessness of modernism”, marking “the wild picturesqueness of modernism as opposed to the quiet but stiff dignity of the purist”. For Ruskin, Turner is ideally situated halfway between the modern and the purist.
In contrast to the “Turneresque”, Ruskin regards the “Constableque” as representing “total worthlessness”: Constable’s tree is “as flat as the old purist one”, but unlike the Purist tree, it is “wholly false in ramification, idle, and undefined in every respect”. Finally, and even worse as far as Ruskin is concerned, in the “Modern, or Blottesque” mode, everything is “blotted”, “the nature of the tree being entirely lost sight of”.
Again, Wordsworth’s trees, or his treatment of nature in general, may have contributed to Ruskin’s views. Ruskin – who was to acknowledge Wordsworth’s lifelong influence even though he was not always uncritical of the poet – adopts a passage from The Excursion as the epigraph on the title-page of his Modern Painters. There the Wanderer condemns modern philosophers for imposing their own limited “intelligence” upon both “the human soul” and “the transcendent universe”. This passage broaches the issue of idealisation, of conceiving the infinite complexity of the inner and the external worlds. Ruskin’s exposition of tree painting responds to this crucial aspect of Wordsworth’s poem. Somewhere between “blotted” abstraction and mere matter-of-factness lies Ruskin’s true sense of how trees should be painted.
Christiana Payne’s richly patterned and beautifully illustrated study closes with a chapter on the Pre-Raphaelite tree. One of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was John Everett Millais, whose minutely painted trees in Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849-50), The Woodsman’s Daughter (1850-1), Ophelia (1851-2) and The Proscribed Royalist (1852-3) are well known today. But trees also feature in Millais’s later works, which remain relatively unnoticed. In his Scotch-Firs of 1873, Millais remembered Wordsworth’s trees. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1874, this Perthshire landscape was accompanied by a literary quotation: “‘The silence that is in the lonely woods.’ – Wordsworth.” This was in fact a readjustment of phrases from Wordsworth’s “Song, at the Feast of Brougham Castle”:
His daily Teachers had been Woods and Rills,
The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.
The Scotch fir – or Scots pine – was one of the poet’s favourite trees. Millais would have come across Wordsworth’s beloved “fir-grove” in “When first I journey’d hither”, where the poet commemorated his brother John, a “silent Poet”, after whom the grove was named. In Scotch-Firs, the riotous, intensely tactile exuberance of the undergrowth in the foreground contrasts with the simple shapes of the perpendicular pines. Framed by the tall trees, Birnam Hill rises in the background, hazy-blue under a soothing sky. Gerard Manley Hopkins thought this painting lacked “instress” – the force that the trees’ essential being would have exerted upon the feelings of the beholder. But Millais’s pines have nevertheless captured something of that resonant silence Wordsworth associates both with trees and with the deepest sources of creativity. This painting offers yet another “pillared shade”: between the tangible vegetative details and the translucent distances, our imagination is given free rein.
Brandon C Yen holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and is an IRC fellow at University College Cork. With Peter Dale, he is writing a book on Wordsworth’s trees for Reaktion Books.
Images: Samuel Palmer, In a Shoreham Garden, c 1829. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. James Gillray, The Tree of Liberty, 1798. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. John Ruskin, “The Aspen, under Idealization”, Modern Painters, vol 4 (London, 1856).