West Melbury Oak (1825) Ink, watercolour and charcoal come to symbolise wisdom to us. In my latest work, I celebrate that history and that special place in our hearts, to highlight the plight of the UK’s ancient oak. My forthcoming exhibition Tree.Life centres on the fact that precious ancient woodland now covers just 2% of the UK and even this tiny acreage is under threat from industrial farming practices, development, HS2 and the mysterious acute oak decline. It’s part of a sad statistic that only 10% of England is covered by woodland, compared with a European average of 37%. For these amazing trees to have survived all that time and to be lost on our watch makes me deeply sad.
As I set up my easel to paint my 700-year-old muse, I pause to consider exactly what its soaring trunk and tangle of branches have witnessed. It started life around the same time as Robert the Bruce was fighting the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. It was 200 years old when Henry VIII married his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The Gunpowder Plot imploded when the tree had marked this spot for 300 years. Its halfmillennial anniversary would have been just before the first railway service steamed into action – and it’s
I pause to consider exactly what its soaring trunk and tangle of branches have witnessed been producing those pesky leaves that disrupt the line ever since.
I will write these historical events into the background of my finished painting. By documenting its incredible longevity, outliving 17 generations of humans, I create context that I hope will cement admiration of the oak further. But it is not just remarkable in its own right: it is also its very own Noah’s Ark. More than 2,200 species, from bats to beetles, and mammals to lichens, are dependent in some way on the oak. If we lose the trees, the repercussions for other wildlife are equally disturbing.
I also write the names of some of these 2,200 into my paintings. They become almost subliminal
Resurgence & Ecologist