I suppose it was inevitable that I should follow on from making prints of birds to making pictures of trees. Although they have featured in several of my paintings, I have shied away from them as a subject in themselves – they are so momentous, so awesome, so …big. They seemed such an intimidating subject, in spite of my love for them, and I so wanted to do them justice.
I decided to take the plunge by making as many sketches as I could. Sketches are less daunting and it doesn’t matter if you go wrong. I would try to draw the trees that I love: the ancient apples in my garden, the oaks on nearby Wortham Ling (that I love to climb…), the pollarded alders at the fen and the glorious and ancient oaks in Helmingham Park. I would record, observe and try to capture their forms.
I began to think about how other painters had presented trees, and then remembered how, as a student in London, I used to visit a room in an obscure corner of the V and A, where no-one else seemed to go, that held the oil sketches of John Constable. I would stand and gaze at one in particular, “Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree.” Unlike the grand gestural sweeps of his larger landscapes, this is a tiny painting, just 12 inches by 9 ¾ inches, but it is magnificent. A highly cropped image, its focus is on the trunk itself, an odd composition, but somehow he conveys the height and strength of the elm. I found it both mysterious and intimate. It is astounding how this study, so detailed and expressive, could have been painted from life, in oils, sitting in the landscape.
Lucian Freud created an etching of this painting in homage to Constable. It appears that he too used to visit this painting from the age of seventeen:
“I’d seen the little painting of the tree-trunk…and thought what a good idea. That’s the thing, I thought. Trees. They are everywhere. Do one of those. A Close-up. Real bark. So I took my easel and put it down in front of a tree and found it completely impossible."
I am not sure where my drawings of trees are going. I don’t know whether they will become prints or paintings, or whether they will remain just sketches in my book. For the moment it doesn’t matter as I am just enjoying keeping company with them.