Extracts from the essay Nature Describing Nature

As sites of magic and mystery, woods and forests proliferate in our art and literature, in fairy tales and myth, and our adult imaginations remain in thrall to their secrets. Subject to collective or individual memory and association, all landscape is freighted with significance, and ‘never a neutral absolute to be viewed objectively.’(1) It follows then that landscape painting should be equally subject to such projections and ideals, to act for both artist and audience as a cypher for the social, political and personal. Our connectedness to the land is fundamental, our histories delineated both visibly and invisibly within its contours; and whilst none of the contemporary works in this book include the figure, all suggest human presence, either physical or psychological. Whilst continuing often to work within an essentially Romantic tradition, in their different ways present-day artists manifest in their work a strong empathetic connection with nature, whilst hinting also at an environment under threat of destruction. For many of these artists, trees and landscape serve as motifs within an allusive visual autobiography of self-identification, in which trees serve as landmarks; symbols of place and of home.

The poet Jeremy Hooker has described the ‘dream of home’ with which so many British landscapes are suffused, and of how they may ‘express desire for one of several things: Paradise, Eden, a return to personal or cultural origins’.(2) David Hockney’s renowned Yorkshire landscapes of the past decade are those of an artist celebrating the beauty of his home county in a late career return to personal origins. Hockney works outdoors, on canvases populated by trees and shrubs in pastures, copses and roadside verges, revisiting the same vantage points in all seasons and weather conditions. The artist has collaborated with the county’s tourist board to create an official tourist trail which maps the various locations in which he has set up his easel. Amongst his preferred sites are the woods at Woldgate, where a twelve-foot-high tree stump acted as a personal totem. Such is the artist’s intense engagement with the land and its trees, that when the stump was attacked in an act of vandalism in the winter of 2012, both its desecration, and Hockney’s aggrieved public response, symbolized an emasculation of both landscape and artist. The lure of belonging and connection the land exerts on us is part and parcel of our national identity, and has a long-established iconography in art.

Kurt Jackson operates in the plein air tradition, working predominantly in the open land, on both paper and canvas. His immersive and performative approach often results in his standing literally on his canvas as it lies on the ground, on riverbank or moorland. The choreography of Jackson’s painterly gestures acts as a direct call and response to nature, and to his own allusive written vocabulary of field notes, often inscribed direct to canvas. In Ravens Call in the Winter’s Sun his wind-dragged hawthorn is a gauzy blur of smeared pigment; nature shaped by nature. Of this painting, Jackson has noted that it was worked outside on several occasions, ‘until it reached a stage of impasse/satisfaction/near completion’. Back in the studio, the picture was hidden from view before a subsequent consideration with fresh eyes, reappraising it as a painting in its own right, and not just as a representation of a particular tree in a particular landscape and time. At this point, the final ‘punctuation’ of paint was added.

Unlike Jackson, Ffiona Lewis paints exclusively in the studio, from memory and imagination, also referencing visual and written notation made in the landscape. Unsurprisingly – given that she studied as an architect before deciding on a career as a painter – her essential interest is in formal and compositional structure. Her process is often highly physical, as she sands and scrapes into her paint and its substrates. The artist draws and models form very directly with paint, coaxing it from layers of smeared and puckered oil, applied with brush and palette knife, eliminating superfluous detail in endeavouring to pin down the essence of the subject and the feelings summoned by its memory. In River Pine, Davy’s Gray, the sentinel-like tree is edged into shape both from within and without, its wing-like swathes of foliage suggesting swaying movement. Lewis uses a distinctive line, incised into wet paint in a way that animates the surface, exposing elements of under-painting: here a diluted alizarin crimson. Her colour is remembered or noted rather than strictly observed, and its predominant palette of terre verte, umbers, ochres and blues, often mixed with plenty of white, evokes the clarity of Northern light.

There is a Gothic sensibility at work in the paintings of Hannah Maybank, for whom the tree has been a constant subject over the past twelve or so years. None of her paintings are direct depictions of a particular spot. Instead for her they are more about the act of slow looking, of reading and discovering, and of conjuring up a continual dialogue between the painting and the viewer. The artist prefers interpretations of her work to be open-ended, their narrative implications ambiguous. The raised areas in her paintings are deliberately elusive. Their repetitive stamp, akin to wallpaper patterns, came about upon reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper during her time as a student at the Royal College of Art. Maybank has said that they link to many things, and ‘come from an idea that there is something lurking under the surface, much like meaning’. Maybank engages in her painting with a process of symmetry and layering. As her embossed patterns peel and erupt they hint at the potential for revelation, the seepage of minor histories and narratives, those which tend to remain undocumented, or beneath the surface. Moon Canopy (The Guardians) shows the ‘gateway to the woods’ – an x-ray of overlapping arboreal forms at dawn or nightfall. A flotilla of blister-pack insignia rise above the woods and out of the picture edge, suggesting a continuation into a wider landscape of further possibilities.

Published in Under the Greenwood: Picturing the British Tree from Constable to Kurt Jackson
(Sansom and Company, 2013)

© Ian Massey 2013

(1) Ysanne Holt, British Artists and the Modernist Landscape, Ashgate, 2003, p1.
(2)  Jeremy Hooker, The Experience of Landscape, The Arts Council/South Bank Centre, 1987, p11.

Under the Greenwood is the catalogue for two linked exhibitions at the St. Barbe Museum, Lymington:



Artist websites:

Kurt Jackson: http://www.kurtjackson.com/

Ffiona Lewis: http://www.redfern-gallery.com/ffiona-lewis_1039

Hannah Maybank: http://hannahmaybank.com/ 

Posted in: Essays