Conard Wood to Fangorn Forest – Trees in Art and Literature by Justine Hopkins – Special Interest day Wednesday 22nd March 2023

Art historian and freelance lecturer Dr Justine Hopkins gave 3 outstanding lectures on the place of trees in art and literature spanning Biblical times to the beginning of the 21th century for this Special Interest Day.

1 – Growing the Human Brain : Trees from Biblical Times to William Blake

In her first lecture, Justine set out how trees have played an enormous part throughout history, in our lives and imagination, in our writing and in our art and still do to this day, so that we almost take them for granted. Trees grow larger and live longer than humans, but like humans each one is unique.

Initial Christianity is based around the tree as life and the leaving of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis, which is beautifully depicted in the work of artists Bruegel the Elder and Reubens in “The Garden of Eden” (1615), among many others artists. Jesus’ death on the wooden crucifixion cross  develops the tree as gallows only to be followed by the resurrection, where trees are used and depicted as growth and rebirth with the flourishing of Christianity. Parallels in Christianity and tree as life are also to be found in Old Norse Mythology with Odin and in Druidism with the Oak Seer.

Over the centuries, woods became places to tame with trees to be cut and trimmed for hunting as a sport for Kings. The idea of trees as  landscape in art did not really develop until the 18th Century when people were increasingly living in large cities, away from nature. Thomas Gainsborough developed this in his “Conard Wood, Sudbury, Suffolk” (1748) but it is an imagined wood to fit his imagination. The French philosopher Rousseau also spoke and wrote much about the “Noble Savage” and the need to live among the trees in nature. For William Blake, trees became part of his spiritual belief, and he represented them in his writings and artistically in his “Songs of Innocence: The Lamb” (1789); balanced some years later by his “Songs  of Experience” on human emotions in “The Poison Tree” (1784).

 2 – Light and Shadow never stand still : Painting trees from Constable to Sargent

John Constable (1776-1837) was keen that people should understand his paintings through landscape, light and movement and so developed his theme  of trees as architecture, particularly in his “Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds” (1832) where the tree frames the gothic Cathedral – Gothic architecture being considered the most natural of architectures.  J.M.W Turner (1775-1851) was more taken with the sheer beauty and architecture of trees in themselves as seen in his “Mortlake Terrace Summer Morning (1826) and Summer Evening (1827).

Justine showed how the 19th Century was the great age of tree painting as a beautiful part of the natural landscape both in poetry, quoting from Gerard Manley Hopkins’(1844-1896) “Spring and Fall” (1880) and in art, describing how the Pre-Raphaelites actually painted in the open air, e.g Edmund Warren’s (1834-1909) “In the Woods” 1866. In this period, the painted tree also carried a more symbolic serious message as in John Everard Millais (1829-1896) “Autumn Leaves” (1856), indicating the passing of time and a sense of our own  mortality. While the impressionist artist Claude Monet‘s (1840-1926) paintings were all about capturing the moment with his 24 paintings of Poplar Trees (1891) in different lights. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) liked to contrast the light in trees with light in the foreground as in his “Il Solitaro (The Hermit)” (1908), imbuing the whole with a kind of spiritual significance.

3 – Enchantment and Terror: Modern Trees from Picasso to Hockney

Arriving in the 20th Century, Justine felt that the relationship between trees and the modern world was darker than in previous centuries, especially with work of war artists such as Paul Nash (1889-1946) during WWI with his painting of the destroyed and denuded landscape in France in “Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood” (1918). The Surrealist Movement was aimed at shaking up the viewer and making them think as in Paul Nash’s “Swan Song” (1929-30) and Max Ernst’s “Forest and Dove” (1927).

This was a time when J.R.R Tolkien (1892 -1973) was writing “The Lord of the Rings” (1954-55) with his Fangorn Forest“ which is a judgmental forest and yet people of goodwill do not come to harm as the trees are benevolent. Reading from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and quoting Robert Frost’s “The Path Not Taken” (1915) Justine helped us see how the 20th Century was also all about making choices, and immersing oneself in nature, especially after WWII. The only female artist mentioned, Laura Knight (1870-1977) said “Trees are eternal energy, they are an eternal delight”, a theme taken up by Ivan Hitchens (1893 -1979) who developed a beautiful fluidity between his use of colours and abstraction in nature as seen his “Forest Edge No.11” (1944)

Finally we come to David Hockney in the 21st century who presents us his “Three Trees Sequence near Thixendale” (Spring, Summer, Autumn & Winter) (2007) and invites us to just “enjoy nature” since  “Our nearest relation is the Natural World”.

This was a fascinating day of lectures, with far more writers and artists quoted than can be mentioned here. Justine Hopkins’ knowledge and enthusiasm for her subject came over so well that she kept us all enthralled.


Liz Beecheno