Striking Artworks Capture the Majesty and Magic of the Ancient Oak Tree

Mark Frith drew the trees in graphite without leaves to show the 'soul' of a thousand-year life spent outside in the British elements.

By Simon Ingram
photographs by Mark Frith, Kew Collection
Published 22 Feb 2019, 09:00 GMT

The Bowthorpe Oak stands inauspiciously in a field off a farm track in Lincolnshire. It’s squat, bulbous and oddly frail-looking despite being anything but. The tree is claimed locally to be one of England’s fattest and therefore oldest oaks, with a splayed girth of 12.3 metres. The top accolade in either case is unlikely: there are wider oak trees recorded, and absolute age is very hard to determine in a living specimen. But the Bowthorpe Oak is certainly high-ranking amongst Britain’s formidable army of ancient trees, many of which are estimated to be well over a thousand years old. And it is certainly one of the most curiously utilised. 

As is common amongst oaks of a great age, its trunk holds a hollow cavity, where the tree has eaten out nutrients and minerals from its own trunk to prolong its life. This one is said to have accommodated 18thcentury dinner parties, and a dozen guests. Guests now dead for centuries – yet the old tree and its story lives on.

The twisted silhouette of an old oak is as quintessential to the British countryside as rolling fields, hedgerows and the smell of woodsmoke on damp air. Every twist and weathered surface on these trees speaks of the remarkably lengthy history many of them have lived – and continue to live – through. According to the National Trust, 'one ancient oak has a biodiversity of more than a thousand hundred year old oaks', teeming with lichen, invertebrates, deadwood and insects. But apart from being dense, city-like ecosystems, one man saw something else in these trees. 

Capturing the ‘soul’ of the tree

Mark Frith, a former documentary filmmaker and artist, has made these trees the subject of a series of graphite renderings. Entitled A Legacy of Ancient Oaks, the entire collection of 20 drawings – commissioned by the late publisher and woodland philanthropist Felix Dennis – are currently on display in an exhibition at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

"I love the simplicity of drawing with a pencil on a piece of paper. It is how I used to draw as a child," Frith told National Geographic UK. "Happily I was to discover that the texture of winter oak lends itself perfectly to graphite on paper."

The immediate impression of each subject in the 20 images is one of age. Each depicts an oak tree of greater age than 500 years, with many estimated at 1000 or older. Frith’s initial inspiration was a tree close to his childhood home – the Great Oak, at Nibley Green in Gloucestershire – the first tree to be sketched in his series, which has also recently been published in book form.

"Moving back into my childhood home coincided with my beginning to draw again, I drew it simply because it was there." Frith continues. "That said, the oak has of course, long been revered in Britain, as a symbol of strength, longevity, and beauty - our navy was built from oak, as were many fine medieval buildings. Being aware of its place and status in British culture and history, I was intrigued to seek out more of these ancient characters, and it was this that led to the series of drawings."

All the trees are drawn with stark detail in their winter atrophy, with no leaves to obscure the delicate structure and texture of the trunk, branches, and bark. Each stands alone in white, emphasising the unique form of each tree. 

Referring to the Nibley Green tree, Mark Frith says: "with the first drawing I wanted to create a portrait of my childhood friend, and perhaps unconsciously, following the convention of human portraiture, I decided to isolate the tree from its background. 

"For the same reason I chose to draw the tree without leaf in order to lay bare it's mighty limbs, it's musculature, it's character."


How ancient are our oaks?    

The Ancient Tree Inventory operated by the Woodland Trust lists over 160,000 ancient trees, and is populated by way of user-submitted reports. Calculating the age of a tree can be tricky and decidedly un-scientific, with measures such as ‘fatter than usual’ and ‘gnarled’ replacing any kind of precision – and on top of that there may be regional climatic variations too – but generally the most reliable measure is ‘girth.’ 

By this value the Bowthorpe Oak is mighty, and joins other ancient oaks such as the Marton Oak, the Old Man of Calke and the famous Major Oak of Sherwood Forest as being amongst the oldest recorded oaks in the land. By the ‘ready reckoner’ calculations of the Woodland Trust, all are thought to be around or in excess of 1,000 years old. Which means this living tree, standing behind a little fence in a Lincolnshire field, pre-dates the Aztecs.  

"It is humbling to spend long hours contemplating these magnificent veterans, contemplating their longevity, their individual characters, their strength and symbolism," says Mark Frith. "At the same time I grieve for the uncertain future of these ancient trees, given the all too real and imminent threat posed to them by climate change... of which [humans] are an inextricable part.."   

 A Legacy of Ancient Oaks is exhibiting at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at RBG Kew until 17 March.



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