With our new display Regarding Trees in the Drawings Gallery opening later this week, we ask Curator Dr Rachel Sloan to tells us about it:
Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517) , Tree in winter, c.1504
Thomas Hearne (1744-1817), The Chestnut Tree at Little Wymondley, Hertfordshire, 1789
Gilles van Coninxloo (1544-1607), Wood landscape, c. 1598-00
Devising a display of drawings of trees is a task as daunting as it is tantalising: how do you narrow down your selection to a reasonable size for an intimate gallery when you’re working with a subject so common and so central in the history of art? When I was first asked to curate Regarding Trees, I was overjoyed, until I did a keyword search for ‘tree’ in our collection database and turned up a total of 528 drawings. How could I ever cut that down to twenty – and how could I give the display some shape?
An answer appeared, in all places, in an 18th-century treatise on the aesthetics of landscape: the Reverend William Gilpin’s Remarks on Forest Scenery, and Other Woodland Views (1791). Gilpin was a highly influential theorist whose writings were very important to Romantic artists and writers, and he organised his book in a way that actually does allow the reader to see the forest from the trees: he begins by discussing individual trees with a level of almost portrait-like detail, moves on to the role of the tree within landscape, and finishes with a meditation on forest scenes. I decided to follow Gilpin’s framework in creating a structure for the display, which opens with ‘portraits’ of trees, followed by drawings of single trees within landscapes, and concludes with four forest views.
The earliest work in the display is a delicate study of a leafless tree by the Florentine artist Fra Bartolommeo, one of the earliest known European drawings of a tree apparently produced for its own sake, rather than for the background of a religious or mythological scene. Fra Bartolommeo was a Dominican monk, and his obvious delight in nature stemmed from the teachings of Saint Francis that the beauty of nature should be regarded as evidence of the love of God.
Many of the other drawings on view are remarkable for their vigour and animation: the trees look as if they’re about to move of their own accord. Gillis van Coninxloo’s enchanting Wood Landscape plunges the viewer into the understory of a wood with its thick crowns of foliage and deep shadows. Coninxloo’s energetic penwork conveys a sense of movement, as if the trees were tossed by a strong breeze. If you’ve ever been entranced by the dark energy of the forest paintings of seventeenth-century Dutch artists like Jacob van Ruisdael, Coninxloo’s forests are their starting point.
One of the most exciting discoveries I made while working on Regarding Trees was a watercolour of a huge, gnarled tree in a landscape by the eighteenth-century British draughtsman Thomas Hearne. It was catalogued as Landscape with a large oak, but a bit of research determined that not only was the tree not an oak, it was a chestnut, and a famous one at that – the great chestnut at Little Wymondley, Hertfordshire. When Hearne made the watercolour, in 1789, the tree was recorded as having a girth of forty-two feet and local legend claimed that it had been planted by the Romans. Best of all, it was so celebrated that Gilpin devoted a page to it in Remarks on Forest Scenery.
The Little Wymondley chestnut still stands today, although now on private land that is difficult to access. Why not come instead to see Hearne’s watercolour of it at its most splendid – and some of its many cousins throughout the ages?
Regarding Trees runs 18 June-25 September 2016