It was a perfect sunny winter's day today, just wonderful for going out and getting to know the landscape around Beecraigs a little better.
First stop was Cairnpapple Hill, so steeped in significance since prehistoric times - not surprising since it has such a fantastic view from all angles, to the Pentlands, the Ochils, across the water to Fife and further out to Berwick Law, the Perthshire and Lomond mountains and even Arran on the best days.
I'd spotted a row of beeches on satellite photos on the northern boundary of the hill, so went to investigate, finding a sheltered little valley with some small, hardy oaks along with the boundary beeches.
After a good walk round Cairnpapple I headed towards Witch Craig Wood and the Korean War Memorial, where I've been told I'd find an unusual bit of graffiti. After a little hunting I found not one but two carved horses on trees by side of the road.
One looks like a knight of some sort with a sword, perhaps some reference to the Hospitallers of Torphichen? The other is clearly a Clydesdale horse, standing proudly in the carving by B.R. in '78. I wonder what their stories are...
"To draw is to look, examining the structure
of appearances - a drawing of a tree shows not
a tree, but a tree being looked at."
My approach to drawing is all about looking intently at my subject: the starting point for all my artwork is a meeting with a tree and a dialogue with it through mark-making. So when I was invited to take part in this year’s Kelburn Garden Party it seemed like a great opportunity to start that dialogue with some of their amazing trees.
For the duration of the festival I plan to be working around the estate and Glen, creating a collection of drawings on the theme of ‘A tree being looked at’. If you’re at the Garden Party over the weekend, you can find me in the afternoons under the Weeping Larch in the area known as ‘The Gardens’ where I’ll also be doing short drawing workshops.
If you feel like a wander through the Neverending Glen, you can also discover and use the viewfinders I’ve placed along the way. These have quotes on them which relate to my ‘tree being looked at’ theme, and all are from books, artists and writers who have been inspiring and eye-opening for me and my work which I really wanted to share. I’ve hung the viewfinders so that they can be handled and used to frame your own views of the natural world – it’s all about looking!
Here are the quotes and their sources, with links...
“To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree is an act of reverence not only toward the tree, but also to our human connection to it. It gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness.”
Alan Lee from Drawing Projects, Mick Maslen & Jack Southern
“We see our world through the kind of questions we are able to ask about it, and by asking ‘more interesting questions’, we will discover more interesting ways of seeing it.”
Drawing Projects, Mick Maslen & Jack Southern
“One must always draw. Draw with the eyes when one cannot draw with a pencil.”
“Woods have come to look like the subconscious of the landscape”
“To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed. It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically, by getting lost.”
Wildwood, Roger Deakin
“I have learnt that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen, and that when I start to draw an ordinary thing, I realise how extraordinary it is.”
The Zen of Seeing: Seeing drawing as meditation, Frederick Franck
“Which bits of our aesthetic or emotional consciousness do rot-holes and calluses touch?”
“What deep-rooted associations do old trees conjure up? Are they some kind of portal to understanding the deep relationship between wildness and time? “
Beechcombings, Richard Mabey
“It is motionless yet it oozes energy.”
Henry Moore at the British Museum, Henry Moore
“To walk through an ancient wood is to tread in the footsteps of the ghosts of those who once lived and worked in the medieval and early industrial countryside.“
Ancient Woodland: History, Industry and Crafts, Ian D. Rotherham
“...trees are wildlife just as deer or primroses are wildlife. Each species has its own agenda and its own interactions with human activities.”
Woodlands, Oliver Rackham
“I found the poems in the fields,
And only wrote them down.”
‘Sighing for Retirement’, John Clare
“Our habitual vision of things is not necessarily right: it is only one of an infinite number.”
The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd
I'll be posting more news and photos from the weekend on my facebook page whenever I can get a signal, so you can follow my progress there.
Many eminent people have marked the recent passing of Oliver Rackham, widely regarded as the country’s foremost academic and writer on the interrelated subjects of trees, woodlands, landscape and history – Professor Ian D Rotherham’s blog and the Woodland Trust do it very well.
For me, Oliver Rackham’s books (and his wonderful illustrations as pictured above) were an eye-opening introduction to a new way of looking at my subject. After reading his work, an interesting tree was no longer just interesting for its form, its texture, its colour: it was something that could be read almost as a historical document. The tree’s physical properties were not just a result of its own nature, but were intimately linked to its environment and the people who interacted with it over its lifetime.
That concept of dialogue between tree, human and place has been crucial to the development of my creative process, and I have Oliver Rackham to thank for that.
These are some of the trees which have inspired the works in my current solo exhibition, 'Time around trees', along with some quotes from authors and scientists whose books have helped me understand and reflect on what I see.
Crichton shattered beech Near Crichton Castle, Midlothian
Here veteran beeches line a little hollow lane beside an Iron Age Fort and a neighbouring field boundary.
When I first found the site on a walk with a friend, one tree stood out in particular for its striking form, following the collapse of one of the main limbs in a recent storm. Its distinctively separate twisting trunks suggest that it may have been ‘bundle planted’, where several saplings are planted together to give the impression of an older tree. Its surface is patterned with scars and marks from graffiti, barbed wire fencing and hole boring insects.
'Which bits of our aesthetic or emotional consciousness do rot-holes and calluses touch. What deep-rooted associations do old trees conjure up? Are they some kind of portal to understanding the deep relationship between wildness and time?’
Richard Mabey, Beechcombings
Dalkeith burred oak Dalkeith Country Park, Midlothian
These ancient oaks, in their rare wood pasture landscape, evoke for me the difference between a tree’s lifespan and that of a human.
Likely to have been at least 400 years old when it died, this tree continues to provide habitat and sustenance to the organisms of the woodland. The bark has rotted and been returned to the soil, revealing the whorls and contortions of the underlying structure. It could stand for another 200 years, dead but filled with life. As if to emphasise the point, a crow flew suddenly out of one of the holes in the trunk as I was drawing.
‘...the burr is an excrescence of would-be buds rising from somewhere deep inside the tree like a spring... A burr may arise as a reaction to some itch in the tree, a kind of benign wood tumour. What begins as disfigurement ends life as an opulent adornment.’
Roger Deakin, Wildwood
Hopetoun half tree, Hopetoun Estate, West Lothian
Before it was lopped, this beautiful beech by the side of the Bo’ness Road was a marker in the landscape for me on a regular route near home. Then one day it had simply been beheaded – perhaps it was deemed to be unsafe or diseased.
The remaining stump was at once shocking and fascinating, as the removal of the branches had revealed the torso-like sculpture of the trunk. The problems of drawing trees that I was struggling with then had been solved by the chainsaw, and a whole body of work was inspired.
‘...trees are wildlife just as deer or primroses are wildlife. Each species has its own agenda and its own interactions with human activities. If all trees were like the ideal, they would lose most of their significance, all their historic meaning, most of their beauty and most of their value as habitat.’
Oliver Rackham, Woodlands
Newbattle graffiti beech, Newbattle Abbey College, Midlothian
In the grounds of this adult education college and former Cistercian abbey, stands this single large beech on the banks of the South Esk. It has accumulated decades’ worth of carvings, initials, dates and symbols on every accessible surface. The oldest decipherable date is 1945, perhaps because there were Italian prisoners of war held in the grounds and the house was used as barracks during the war.
Coins are pressed into the bark along the tree’s massive lower limb. It’s evident that hundreds of human lives have had links with this tree.
‘To walk through an ancient wood is to tread in the footsteps of the ghosts of those who once lived and worked in the medieval and early industrial countryside.’
Ian D. Rotherham, Ancient Woodland: History, Industry and Crafts
Novar fungus beech, Novar Estate, Evanton, Easter Ross
I discovered this site on a family holiday and have drawn there in early spring for five consecutive years.
The Novar estate was laid out in the mid 1700s as a deer park and as a symbol of the laird’s status. It has many great old trees, but the beeches there are special for me.
This solitary beech stands in the parkland wearing its convoluted crown covered in lichens, its trunk stacked with bracket fungus which is recycling the heartwood.
‘... at each place where [the tree] has been bent or cut it has grown stronger, swelling into a callous like a human knee or puckering into a bump of scar tissue round the little star-cracked crater of each amputated branch. Every one of these details represents a decision, a little setback for the tree to which it responds with redoubled vigour...’
Roger Deakin, Wildwood
Scone grafted beech, Scone Palace Grounds, Perthshire
I was introduced to this tree on an Ancient Tree Forum site visit in Perthshire.
Clearly planted as an ornamental tree, this beech reflects in its bark the battle going on between the common beech rootstock and the copper beech grafted onto it. The join is unusually high, which accounts for the very visible bulges, bosses and scars, and which immediately attracted me to draw it.
‘A known tree was a solid link with the past, an embodiment of continuity. It could be welcomed as one of the family – or at least the family estate. It could be appropriated as a trophy, a proof of clever husbandry, a symbol of ancient occupation or social standing.’
Richard Mabey, Beechcombings
I used to go to Chatsworth lots as a child, for picnics, walks, to play by the river and in the famous weir, to run round the gardens and grottos and to trail around the stuffy house as I thought it then, full of seats you couldn't sit on and things you mustn't touch. I honestly don't remember any paintings or other artworks I saw then, though I must have encountered many marvellous ones.
However I went there on purpose last week, whilst down south for the Tree Stories project, to see there current show of sculpture in the grandest of settings. Here's a small selection of my favourites, but you can find an interactive map here if you are looking for details.
drawings of this tree but looking again now I think it merits a whole series to itself. Maybe this is what comes next...- whilst looking at these photographs I can relive memories of a drawing trip here in early spring this year. Ancient oaks, gorgeous light, solitude apart from buzzards and the occasional frog. I've done a few 360 degree
So what’s so special about trees? And why is it always the old and gnarly ones I go on about?
It’s fairly obvious to anyone looking at my work that I have a deep and enduring interest in trees – the origins of which I’ve talked about in other posts. Over the last five years or so, my drawings have developed in parallel to my knowledge of and appreciation for trees, their history, ecology and our cultural links with them.
The more I read and understand about them as a subject, the better I feel that creative connection which is essential for me to make good work. There are some key books which have influenced me, but even better than reading is meeting real people sharing their expertise and passion.
So last week I went along to the Ancient Tree Forum's Highland Gathering in Perthshire to meet some proper tree people and hear talks and discussions on things ancient and arboreal. The morning session in Perth included talks on themes around wood pasture, parkland, tree recording and preservation, Atlantic hazel woods, along with perspectives from England and Scotland.
Our afternoon was spent literally in the field, meeting some of Scone Palace’s historic and impressive trees.
Donald Rodger (in the green coat), author of ‘Heritage Trees of Scotland’ introduced us to a massive sitka spruce.
Ted Green, ATF founder and president, speaking beside the James VI/I sycamore.
My favourite tree from the field visit was a huge copper beech. The strange contortions in its trunk are due to the copper beech tree being grafted onto common beech rootstock at an unusually high graft point.
So what did I learn? Loads more than I can write but here’s a start...
- Here in the UK we have ancient trees and landscapes of European and even global significance.
- They are really rare, very rich habitats which are only just beginning to be understood.
- Our ancient trees and treescapes have very little protection from destruction or damage – even relatively recent important buildings have much more protection.
- They are irreplaceable – planting new trees is not enough. They are complex ecosystems that have evolved over hundreds, quite possibly thousands of years.
- They are a living link to our past, representing a depth of history which can be hard for us short-lived humans to comprehend – for example the oaks I draw in Dalkeith Country Park are known to be at least 500 years old.
- Death and decay is a very important part of this ecosystem. An old tree with bracket fungus growing from it is not necessarily a sick or fragile tree – the fungus is recycling material that the tree no longer needs, making the nutrients available to the tree roots again.
- Hollow trees are especially important for the habitats they provide for all kinds of creatures, plants, fungi and lichens.
- There’s a growing movement of people – campaigners, scientists, ecologists, academics, arborists, historians and artists of course, who are raising awareness and appreciation of this amazing heritage that we have.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone...Tags:
Newbattle Abbey College has a long and interesting history and some of my very favourite trees.
It’s been a regular haunt for me since I moved to Scotland in 1994 and I returned today in search of some tree graffiti to get the ideas flowing around ‘Tree Stories’, a project in the pipeline which I hope to be involved in later this year. It’s being developed by Professor Ian D Rotherham at Sheffield Hallam University and aims to get the public engaged in a national hunt for marked and worked trees, recording them in photographs and trying to find out a bit more about their history.
This idea was immediately appealing to me, as I’ve been collecting images of carved and marked trees and incorporating these into my recent work.
Newbattle graffiti beech, charcoal on paper (plus detail)
It raises some interesting questions for me about where the line is drawn between vandalism and culture, damage and heritage. I’d like to find out more about how carving a living tree affects it – does it lead to stress, disease or weakness, or is the tree able to repair or isolate the damage? How much of the bark’s surface can be carved before it starts to cause serious problems for the tree?
This particular beech seems to have taken on a local significance as the place to ‘make your mark’. The oldest carving I could identify was dated 1955, but most were from the 1970s and 80s, with some much more recent.
It’s both shocking and impressive to see the whole surface of the tree marked like this – as if a large crowd had gathered by the river and started yelling their names.
I've never noticed this on my previous visits, but there are coins pressed into wounds in the bark like some sort of spontaneous offering. I've read about 'money trees' before but never seen one up close.
There are more 'Tree Stories' to come from this one I think!Tags:
I’m often asked why I’ve chosen to draw trees and the honest answer is that I really don’t know, I just found myself doing it and now I can’t stop.
It’s a subject that has so many layers of historic, cultural and symbolic meaning and such visual variety that I know I’ll never get bored. In a way, having that constraint on my choice of subject has made me feel more free to experiment with materials and forms of expression.
However, it’s also true to say that there are many things that have influenced my artistic journey to this point and, since it’s Father’s Day, I’ll give the credit to my dad.
Introducing Tony Lee – Woodturner, who died in 2007 but still keeps an eye on me in my studio. He’s pictured here in his own workshop, surrounded by the tools of his trade and looking justifiably pleased with himself, having created his own business in the dark times of the mid eighties. His first workshop was the garden shed where he taught me to turn on the lathe, cut a mortise and sand to a silky finish. I also learned about the quirks and qualities of wood as a material – how it continues to move long after it’s been cut.
I have some of his calipers in my studio now (you can see them to the left of him in the picture).
So you could say that trees have been a theme in family life as I grew up and going back a further generation this was also the case.
My grandparents lived in Worksop Nottinghamshire, close to Sherwood Forest and the Welbeck, Rufford and Clumber estates, otherwise known as ‘The Dukeries’. We spent many a happy Sunday travelling the countryside in their Hillman Imp and the highlight of a trip would be a visit to this monster:
Here’s a picture of us in authentic 1970s garb to give you a sense of scale – I’m quite glad that this old picture is grainy, so you can’t see my haircut!
The Major Oak is the most famous tree in Sherwood and possibly one of the most famous in the UK. When I was a child you could clamber all over it and my sister and I used to hide right inside its belly. These are much more recent photos I took when visiting early this year:
Of course it’s now surrounded by a fence and is extensively supported by large props. It brings to mind a zoo animal, somewhat constrained but conserved and protected at least.
How could you fail to be impressed by this ancient tree?
I don't really know where my inspiration comes from, I just hope it never stops.
Unusually, this is the only tree I photographed, though not really a tree at all.
The weirdest flowers I've ever encountered - an orchid with a vine-like habit but I didn't note the name.
I can't take credit for these photos - most are my daughter's! I think she has a good eye already.