Celebrating the role of trees and woodland in British Art

Monday, 06 November 2017

A walk in the woods

Today (6 November) marks the 800th anniversary of the influential 1217 Charter of the Forest. Now, a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People is being launched to champion the many benefits trees and woods bring to people.

Led by the Woodland Trust, over 70 organisations from across multiple sectors have joined forces to create the Charter that will guide policy and practice in the UK.

Coinciding with the new Charter, Professor of Art History at Oxford Brookes University, Christiana Payne, has produced a new book, Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art, 1760-1870 and an art exhibition celebrating the role of trees and woodland in British art.

“Symbolic, simplified or naturalistic, depictions of trees tell us much about the societies in which they flourished,” said Christiana, who has spent the last seven years on this research project.

“In the 18th and 19th centuries, naturalists, poets and artists were united in their love of trees. My research has explored drawing manuals, illustrated books on trees, oil paintings, watercolours and prints, landscape gardening, poetry and artists' writings, all to gain an understanding of how interest in trees developed and how ideas changed during this era.”

The exhibition A Walk in the Woods: A Celebration of Trees in British Art was co-curated by Christiana and is currently on display at The Higgins Bedford Gallery until February 2018.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, naturalists, poets and artists were united in their love of trees. My research has explored drawing manuals, illustrated books on trees, oil paintings, watercolours and prints, landscape gardening, poetry and artists' writings, all to gain an understanding of how interest in trees developed and how ideas changed during this era.

Professor Christiana Payne, Oxford Brookes University

Drawn from the world-famous Cecil Higgins Art Gallery Collection, the exhibition features 40 watercolours, drawings and prints from the past two centuries, including works by major artists John Constable, Samuel Palmer, Paul Nash and Lucian Freud.

Christiana continues: “The show highlights the importance and enduring popularity of trees in art, and explores various themes which have evolved in artists’ depictions of nature: magical and dreaming trees; trees in the countryside; the pleasures of woods and the lure of the exotic.”

Charter logo

Over the last year Christiana has been collaborating with the Woodland Trust in setting up educational activities and displays in museums in London and Oxford to raise awareness of the importance of trees in British art and culture; she will also be giving talks and lectures on trees in British art in the months following the launch of the Charter for Trees, Woods and People.

Her next research project will take a look across the Atlantic at the role of trees in American paintings from 1800-1870.

You can read more about Christiana’s research on her blog.

Find out more about the Charter for Trees, Woods and People at the website.

Professor Christiana Payne is one of the recipients of the University’s Research Excellence Awards, part of Oxford Brookes’ commitment to supporting research-active academics and in supporting the aims of the Research and Knowledge Exchange Strategy 2016-2020.

The funding is providing Christiana with greater research time to complete her research project fully and carry out related educational activities and community events.

Image: George Price Boyce, At Binsey, near Oxford (1862). Watercolour and ink, 31.1 x 53.7 cm. Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford.

REA 2017