Not only a green thing which stands in the way

About the event

When is a tree not a tree? Art historian David Boyd Haycock gave the latest Art at Oxford Saïd talk.

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.

Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. William Blake

When is a tree not a tree?
Art historian David Boyd Haycock’s talk in the Art at Oxford Saïd series was billed as being about Paul Nash and trees. But in fact it was a much broader meditation on how a range of artists have been drawn to trees and invested meaning in them, and the role of trees in a sense of wellbeing. He quoted the art critic and writer John Berger who said that a drawing of a tree ‘shows not a tree but a tree being looked at’.  

Boyd Haycock’s first example was Mark Gertler, roughly a contemporary of Nash but from a very different background. He was a conscientious objector and, when urged to join up as war broke out in 1914, wrote that war was ‘wretched, sordid butchery’ and he wanted nothing to do with it; he was going to escape to the countryside and, as he said in a later letter, ‘live more among trees’.

It is, as Boyd Hancock said, a ‘lovely phrase’, suggesting that Gertler was ‘trying to find a sense of tranquillity and escape’. But one look at his paintings suggests that ‘he has not found it at all’. In The Merry Go Round, his most famous anti-war work, he clearly has no intention of suggesting tranquillity. But his portrait of Gilbert Cannan and His Mill might be expected to be more comfortable. Cannan, after all, was someone who had introduced Gertler to the countryside and was himself a key figure in the anti-conscription movement. But the painting is instead dissonant and jagged, made more so by the row of trees that are angled like spears stuck in the ground.

Paul Nash, on the other hand, sent to the Slade School to become a graphic artist, would find comfort in drawing trees when he struggled to draw the human form. He could draw trees in a way that he couldn’t draw people, Boyd Hancock said, and the trees came to life to him almost as real people and personalities. As he wrote in 1912, ‘I am trying to paint trees as though they were human beings because I sincerely love and worship trees and know they are people and wonderfully beautiful people.’

In a picture featuring Nash’s fiancée Margaret with trees, it is possible to get ‘a sense of the struggle that Nash did have with painting the human form. But equally when you see her there and see the trees … Paul Nash is … almost eroticising the tree here. The relationship between the female figure form and the shapes and forms of the tree are very interrelated.’ Boyd Haycock said that it is ‘often commented that Nash very rarely has the human form in his paintings and drawings, but there is always the essence of the human there in his art, in his pictures.’

In 1914, Nash immediately did what Gertler would not, and enlisted – not because he actively wanted to be a solder, but because he thought it his duty as an Englishman to defend what he loved. 
Typically, he described his experiences through his sense of the landscape and trees. He wrote to Margaret: ‘imagine a wide landscape flat and scantily wooden and what trees remain blasted and torn, naked and scarred and riddled.’ He also had the time and the opportunity as an infantry officer to paint trees. He was fascinated by the way that nature still survived amidst the destruction of war – new buds are visible in his later painting Spring in the Trenches – and he described in a letter hearing the nightingales singing at the same time as bullets are flying. 

In 1917 Nash fell into a trench in the dark and broke one of his ribs. He was sent back to England to recover, and while he was there he exhibited some of his work. He returned to the Western Front in 1917 not as a soldier but as a war artist. 

He wrote to Margaret ‘The black dying trees ooze the sweat and the smells of the deceased. They wind and plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stunts, breaking the plank roads , striking down horses and mules, annihilating, manning they plunge into the grave which is this land one huge grave and cast off the poor dead, for it is unspeakable, godless, hopeless he then goes on to say I am no longer an artist, I am now a messenger who is going to bring back to the public back home in England at how bad and how awful, how mad and insane this war is.’

He used his art to do that. He was told as an official war artist that he must not represent dead British soldiers. Instead, he painted a dead landscape where, as Boyd Haycock described it, ‘the land is the wound, the land is red with blood, the trees have been shored, everything is destroyed there is no sense of hope in the sense that there was a sense of hope in the spring of 1917.’ 

Nash was not the only artist to respond to the devastated trees on the western front, said Boyd Haycock, but his response is particularly emotionally laden. ‘You have the sense of the wellbeing of trees and any benefit that might be conveyed from them as being lost – but that metaphorically serves a function to tell us what the war has done. If we cannot understand what it has done to people we maybe are able to understand in a small way what it has done to the landscape.’