Magazine article The Spectator

Exploring Branch Lines

Magazine article The Spectator

Exploring Branch Lines

Article excerpt

Exploring branch lines

Oliver Rackham

SILVA: THE TREE IN BRITAIN

by Archie Miles

Ebury Press, L30, pp. 400

Go into a picture gallery, choose a landscape painting at random, and ask yourself, 'What is that tree?' Surprisingly seldom can you give a definite answer. To depict a convincing tree is a difficult accomplishment, which few artists attained. The little-known Simon Benninck and Thomas Hearne were good at it; Claude Lorrain and Gainsborough were not; Constable and Samuel Palmer could manage it on a good day. Even pictures painted specially for identification often fail to distinguish, say, beech from lime; a tree-- recognition poster was popular for many years before anyone noticed that most of the trees on it were not recognisable for the kind they were labelled.

No picture of a big tree can be naturalistic: it would be far too complex. All pictures of trees are caricatures, and the artist has to identify the characteristic features to be retained in the picture. Most artists throw away the distinctive features and keep the non-distinctive ones, the result having something of the anonymity of a bad portrait.

Tree artists do odd things. I puzzled over Gainsborough's so-called 'Cornard Wood': why is it so unlike the real woods of 18th-- century Great and Little Cornard? Then Susan Foister demonstrated that it was a reworking of a Dutch landscape by Ruisdael, having little more to do with Cornard than Piranesi's 'Carceri d'Invenzione' has with real Italian gaols.

Archie Miles is a photographic tree artist: he knows and loves wild trees, and records their spirit with enthusiasm. His is a book of magnificent photographic works of art (even if the colours are often exaggerated, as is fashionable). Some are startling, like the redwood which fell over long ago and went on growing as if nothing had happened. He celebrates great coppice stools, ancient pollards, gnarled mountain oaks, trees sprouting from rock: one would wish for more of these wonderful trees and on a larger scale.

The caricature problem arises here too. Not even the camera delineates all the complexity of a big tree; the photographer's skill lies in selecting and shooting the distinctive features. It is a pity that Mr Miles often shows a big, youngish, leafy tree silhouetted against the sky, a presentation which makes most trees look much the same. The dead boughs which give old trees their character are banished from these pages almost as thoroughly as Gainsborough omitted the dead boughs on Ruisdael's beeches. …

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