Magazine article The Spectator

Very Old Neglected Friends

Magazine article The Spectator

Very Old Neglected Friends

Article excerpt

MEETINGS WITH REMARKABLE TREES

by Thomas Pakenham Weidenfeld, 225, pp. 192

Actors and politicians know that no one who wants to be seen to advantage should be photographed alongside a child or a dog. One of the incidental lessons of Thomas Pakenham's sumptuous new book is that it is an even worse idea to be snapped next to a tree. Most of his 60 colour portraits of photogenic Anglo-Irish trees contain at least one human figure in order to show the scale. Whether these figures are dressed in jeans, trainers and anoraks or swathed in overcoats and mufflers, they are almost invariably diminished by their better-looking and more dignified neighbours, the trees. Only Elizabeth Longford, a walking-stick in one hand and reaching out to touch the trunk of the burnt-out wreck of `Sidney's oak' at Penshurst with the other, manages to come out of the encounter with honours even.

Tree portraits were very popular in the Romantic and early Victorian period, when the sketching and engraving of handsome trees, famous trees and ancient trees was an obsession of British artists. Thomas Pakenham's book is directly in the tradition of Jacob George Strutt's Sylva Britannica (1822). Indeed the author's role as an enlightened Anglo-Irish landowner, planting trees for profit and beauty, is in every way reminiscent of an earlier age. But whereas Thomas Pakenham's ancestors had to rely for their portraits of trees upon engravers and water-colourists, he himself can deploy the resources of modern colour photography. Armed with his Linhof Technika and helped by the hospitality of wellplaced friends, he has travelled the British Isles in search of notable trees. The result is a book which is both original and stunningly beautiful.

Pakenham's sitters have been selected for their age or their associations or their beauty, or for a combination of all three. Trees can live vastly longer than humans and they can often be more precisely dated than can buildings. Unlike humans, they keep their shape for a surprisingly long period. The Fredville oak in Kent as photographed by Pakenham is recognisably the same tree as that drawn by Strutt 175 years ago. As a general rule, however, trees tend to look older than they are, except for yews, which are usually older than they look. The oldest tree in England was often said to be the sweet chestnut at Tortworth, Gloucestershire, which was mentioned by John Evelyn in 1664 and alleged to date back to the ninth-century reign of King Egbert. Pakenham considers that this ancient trunk, which, as he says, looks more like a waterfall than a tree, could be 1,100 years old. But he reminds us that some churchyard yews, like those at Tandridge and Crowhurst, both in Surrey, are certainly a good deal older. …

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