Sunday, 27 April 2014

Trees as Metaphors (Part 4)

There is a long history of trees symbolising attributes such as strength, resilience and the essence of nature, but how have trees been used metaphorically in images (i.e. used pictorially to “explain” ideas)?

For this final discussion about artists’ use of trees to communicate ideas I wish to focus on the curiously enigmatic meanings of trees often featured in early emblem prints, such as Otto van Veen’s (c.1556–1629) Bene qui latuit bene vixit (shown below). Rather than attempting to interpret a specific meaning for the artists’ use of trees in these prints, all the signifying elements need to be read in relation to one another along with meanings that may be projected by the title.

For instance, the title of van Veen’s print is Ovid’s well-know adage from Tristitia: “He who has kept himself well hidden has lived well.” In the time of van Veen, however, it had been embodied by John Owen (1612) to: "Si bene qui latuit, bene vixit, tu bene vivis: Ingeniumque tuum grande latendo patet." ["Thou livest well if one well hid well lives, and thy great genius in being concealed is revealed"] (see William T. Smedley’s [1912] The Mystery of Francis Bacon [viewed 15 April 2014]). When the meaning of this text is understood in this context, van Veen’s use of trees and other featured symbols can be synthesised into a full visual metaphor that explains the important moral lesson—in my words: if you live your life without attracting attention to yourself you will experience a good life and your efforts will be recognised. In terms of the portrayed trees on the upper-right of the image, I perceive that the meaning of the text is captured metaphorically by the broken tree concealed within the grove that the broken tree lives on even though a part of it is dead: the moral themes of vanitas  and memento mori reminding the view of the inevitability of death (see and [viewed 15 April 2014]). Essentially, van Veen’s use of trees should not be viewed out of context with the other portrayed features in the print or the meaning will be lost and the depicted trees will be nothing more than trees in a scene.

Otto van Veen (also known as Otto Venius or Octavius Vaenius) (c.1556–1629)
Bene qui latuit bene vixit, 1683
Published (1683) in Zinnebeelden uit Horatius Flaccus 
[Emblems of Horatius Flaccus], pp. 91–2.
Engraving on fine wove paper with 2.4 cm chainlines
(leaf) 18 x 15 cm; (plate) 12.2 x 9.5 cm
See this book online and download it from

Condition: Strong and well-inked impression on whole leaf printed on both sides with minor signs of use and toning appropriate to the age of the print (1683).

The origin of  what are termed “emblem prints” lies with the early alchemists and their quest for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone—an agent that could turn lead and other base metals (i.e. those that oxidise/corrode like iron and copper) into gold or silver, as well as being an elixir of life. According to Stanislas Klossowski de Rola (1988) in his fascinating book, The Golden Game: Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century, the alchemists revered Egypt as they believed that in Egypt “the gods  revealed their wisdom in visions to the ancient sages, who consigned it to the mysterious pictures which they called hieroglyphs—sacred signs” (p. 8). De Rola explains that the ancient Greeks had the misconception that “hieroglyphs bore no relation to ordinary language but were the pictorial and allegorical expression of sacred knowledge” (p. 9). This misconception is of pivotal importance in the development of emblem prints as outlined succinctly in the Emblem Books webpage, (viewed 3 April 2014):
In 1419, a monk discovered a manuscript from the fifth century known as the "Hieroglyphica" of Horus Apollo or Horapollo on the Greek island of Andros. It was alleged to be a Greek translation of an Egyptian work which explained the hidden meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It stirred up great interest among the learned when it arrived in Florence in 1422. Although much of the information in this work was later proved false, it none the less had a great impact on Renaissance thought and in fact was one of the inspirations for the Emblem books.
To illustrate the impact that the discovered manuscript had upon image and text during the Renaissance, de Rola offers the following enlightening insight by Marsilio Ficino (1433–99):
Our way of thinking about ‘time’ is complex and shifting. For example, ‘time goes quickly’, ‘time revolves and ends up where it began’, ‘time teaches prudence’, ‘time gives and takes away’. This whole range of thought was comprehended in a single firm figure by the Egyptians when they drew a winged serpent with its tail in its mouth. (de Rola 1988, p. 9)
In short, the concept of emblematic images with its roots in ancient Egyptian prototypes perceived to underpin the text, Hieroglyphica, gave artists an approach to crystallise complex and multilayered ideas into a visual language of a single motif or related motifs that informed viewers could read (i.e. those who had a lexicon of explanations for the motifs used).

From a contentious twenty-first century standpoint, the flourishing of emblem books and prints was driven by the shameful desire by collectors for texts and images that would set the learned few who were able to decipher esoteric information apart from those who did not possess “secret knowledge” and “ancient wisdom.” By this I mean that the emblem images were fashioned to appeal to the intellectual elite. Of course, in today’s world where explanations of symbols and forums to share information are just a mouse click away, there is no room for intellectual snobbery. Consequently, now these intriguing prints and their metaphorical meanings are accessible to everyone. Of course, mystery still surrounds the meanings of many emblem prints and even the vast resources of the internet cannot explain the often strange images with comical titles—from a contemporary viewpoint—such as the following by Albert Flamen (1620–1674/93) (extracted from The Illustrated Bartsch, Volume 6: Commentary [1986]):
  • Caterpillars Dropping on Man Under Tree (Bartsch 0608.418; p. 361);
  • Man Attacked by Ball-Shaped Animal (Bartsch 0608.415; p. 360);
  • Man Surprised by Cone-Shaped Meteor (Bartsch 0608.417; p. 361);
  • Man Astride a Seal in the Sea (Bartsch 0608.413; p. 360);
  • Man Offers Precious Stone to a Serpent (Bartsch 0608.416; p. 360);
  • Two Figures Asleep in Moonlight with Swarming Bees (Bartsch 0608.426; p. 363).

Like all good illustrations designed to communicate an idea, emblem prints capture, in the sense of “freeze framing,” a pivotal point in a narrative or line of thought. Sometimes the choice of this pivotal point may be so important that it even becomes an element in a game, as is the case with the large composite print by Henri Abraham Chatelain (1684–1743), Carte Pour a l’ Intelligence De La Fable et Servir De Secours a la Connoissance de l’ Histoire (shown below). In this print, the pivotal point in Ovid’s allegories are pictorially captured in image cells used as memory aids for recalling the myths in the context of a test; a type of print known as a “catchpenny-print.” For example, the myth of Apollo and Daphne is crystallised at the moment of Daphne’s metamorphosis into a tree to escape the ardent pursuit of love-struck Apollo (see detail further below and for an account of the myth: [viewed 23 April 2014]).

Henri Abraham Chatelain (1684–1743)
Carte Pour a l’ Intelligence De La Fable et Servir De Secours a la Connoissance de l’ Histoire, 1722
Published in the encyclopaedic seven volume 'Atlas Historique'. Koeman II p. 33; Shirley 'Atlases in the BL' T.Chat-1a; Van Waning 'Chatelain's Atlas Historique' in IMCoS Journal 120 pp. 7-15. (see and [viewed 16 April 2014])
Engraving on laid paper with 2.8 cm chainlines
(sheet) 51.3 x 60.5 cm; (plate) 59.8 x 49.5 cm
See description of this print at: and view details of each of the emblems by either clicking the directional figures or the page tabs: [viewed 16 April 2014]).
Condition: Excellent impression of this rare and large print with its margins as published. The sheet is in fair condition with backed-up holes and losses (i.e. imperfections have been restored). I am selling this engraving for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $142 AUD. As the print is a large size it will be rolled in a tube for shipping. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.

This print has been sold

This principle of choosing a pivotal point in a narrative or line of thought is all about synthesising critical information in a timeless moment rather than a split-second temporal moment. Or, to express this from a different perspective, like all the principles underpinning emblem prints, the key aim is to present essential visual information in a formal way wherein notions of time are inconsequential and the calculated juxtaposition of symbols and motifs alone project meaning. For instance, in the image shown above of poor Daphne turning into a tree, the essential visual information is the depiction of Daphne as part lady and part tree. Moreover, the way that Chatelain portrays her presence, Daphne is in a timeless state: pictorially frozen in an everlasting state of being morphed. Chatelain also contextualises Daphne’s everlasting moment as a happy state for her in that the figures surrounding her are engaged in music making and dance.

Regarding three other principles underpinning emblem prints—viz. visual dialogue, spatial flattening and foregrounding of imagery—I wish to explain them with reference to some of the emblem prints taken from Jacob Cats’ (1577–1660) famous book, Alle de Wercken van den heere Jacob Cats … [Complete Works of Jacob Cats] illustrated by Adriaen van der Venne (1589–1662). (To view this book online or to download a pdf copy of it, see [viewed 23 April 2014].)

A fine illustration of the principle, visual dialogue—a principle discussed in the earlier post, 3 Key Principles: Goltzius & Piranesi (—can be seen in van der Venne’s engraving, Vrouwe (shown below), printed in a leaf from Cat’s Alle de Wercken van den heere Jacob Cats … . The visual dialogue here is between a tree trunk with a grafted section of another tree and a married couple approaching the grafted tree.

Jacob Cats (1577–1660) (known with respect and affection as “Father Cats”)
Designed/Engraved by Adriaen van der Venne (1589–1662)
Vrouwe [Lady] An emblem print comparing a married couple to a grafted tree.
From Alle de Wercken van den heere Jacob Cats[Complete Works of Jacob Cats] for full title see, 1655
This engraved leaf is from the 1659 edition.
Engraving on full sheet of laid paper (2.8 cm chainlines) printed on both sides as published.
(sheet) 45.5 x 29.3 cm; (plate) 13.4 x 13.2 cm
Condition: Superb impression of this early print with its margins as published in near pristine condition. The sheet has wrinkling from the printing process and there is faint age toning at the extreme edges. 

When viewed in the context of an emblem print, the relationship between the grafted tree and the approaching couple may be read as a simple comparison between a symbiotic union of two trees grafted together with the similar union of a couple in love. As with most emblem prints, of course, the imagery may be read with more profound meanings such as proposed by the website, The Prints Collector (
This plate shows a married couple and a young tree inoculated on an old stem strengthened from the wind by a branch attached to it. The meaning of this emblem is that marriage creates the bond to make man and wife stronger. ( [viewed 23 April 2014])
Going further with additional readings, I see the “old stem” as the masculine element in the grafted trees and that it supports the well-foliaged “branch” which is the female element in the union. My perception of gender roles is not arbitrary. Instead it is the result of seeing the man on the left side of the lady and finding visual correspondence with the “old stem” on the left side of the “branch.” This reading also has cultural resonance as the arrangement matches the Western tradition of showing men on the left of women, such as shown in Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve (see,_Durer,_1504.jpg) and Jan van Eyck’s  Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (see

To illustrate the principle of spatial flattening (i.e. pictorially squashing the illusion of space in an image so that there is little depth), the engraving, Repete (shown below), displays Adriaen van der Venne’s treatment very well. Certainly the illusion of shallow space is helped by the simplicity of his compositional arrangement: a woodpecker perched in a tree with a view of open sky beyond. On close inspection of his way of rendering the foliage as shown in the detail further below, van der Venne employs a play of deep shadows and highlights to present the leaves as if they were in the shallow space of a bas relief. Note also that the tree limbs share in this compression in the sense that none of the limbs advance or recede in a fully three-dimensional way.

Jacob Cats (1577–1660)
Designed by Adriaen van der Venne (1589–1662)
Engraved by Jan Gerrits Swelinck (1601–1699)
Repete [Repeat (?)]. This emblem print references proverbs such as “Rome wasn’t built in a day” in relation to the slow endeavours of a woodpecker trying to make an impression on an oak tree. This personal interpretation is based on the couplet inscribed beneath the print:
Gheen boom en wast op eenen dagh,
Gheen boom en valt ten eersten slagh. 

[No tree falls at one blow, we say,
Nor city was built in one day.]  

From Proteus, 1618 and Sinne- en minnebeelden, 1627 (see text from this page: [viewed 24 April 2014]) and Alle de Wercken van den heere Jacob Cats … [Complete Works of Jacob Cats], 1655,
This engraved leaf is from the 1659 edition. Note that in some editions the plate has been is cut in reverse (i.e. the image is mirrored).
Engraving on full sheet of laid paper (2.8 cm chainlines) printed on both sides as published
(sheet) 45.6 x 28.8 cm; (plate) 12.6 x 12.6 cm
Below the print, the following text is written in Dutch (see English translation further below):
Soo haest ick my bevont in Venus net ghevanghen,
Seyd’ ick het Rosemont. Waer toe veel kromme gangen?
En siet! My docht terstont de vryster was ghereet;
Maer op soo mallen waen ontfingh ick dit bescheet:
De Specht, het grillich dier, die pickt in alle boomen,
Maer wat de geck begint, ten zijn maer rechte droomen;
Hy meynt, daer is een gat: maer t’hout is al te dick:
O vrient, een eyken boom vereyst al harder pick.

[No sooner was dame Venus yoke about my neck but I
Did grapple with my love forthwith: what need I then to lye.
I thought, that at that instant shee for mee had bene preparde;
But ere I went from her, I gott this lesson to regarde,
The Spitt pickt at the Oaken tree, but saw it no whit mooved.
Yet neverthelesse shee stood and gaept and never once more prooved,
But thought sh'had pickt it through, no foole, I say doe not mistake
For one pick by a folish byrde in th'Oake no hole can make.]

Condition: Superb impression of this early print with its margins as published in near pristine condition. The sheet has wrinkling from the printing process and there is faint age toning at the extreme edges.

The principle of flattening the illusion of space is linked closely to the third principle that I wish to discuss: foregrounding of imagery. I mention this in the sense that by compressing the key features of an emblem print within the shallow confines of the foreground, a viewer’s attention is focused on the relationships between the critical features. In the engraving, Sufficit Una (shown below), for example, a viewer would have difficulty in ignoring the activity on the left-side of the image involving a cloud-borne hand slicing into a tree with a grafting knife. After this visually arresting initial reading, however, a viewer is then able to freely contemplate the distant landscape features on the right side of the image. This arrangement of foregrounding the key features gives emblem prints visual impact for their didactic role; namely, a web of symbols designed to communicate moral truths, virtues and wisdom.

Jacob Cats (1577–1660)
Designed/Engraved by Adriaen van der Venne (1589–1662)
Sufficit Una [One Suffices]. This emblem print references proverbs such as “Enough is as good as a feast”.
From Emblemata Moralia et Oeconomica [Moral and Domestic Emblems], 1627, in Alle de Wercken van den heere Jacob Cats … [Complete Works of Jacob Cats], 1655, p. 152 ( [viewed 23 April 2014]).
This engraved leaf is from the 1659 edition.
Engraving on full sheet of laid paper (2.8 cm chainlines) printed on both sides as published
(sheet) 45.8 x 28.8 cm; (plate) 12.5 x 12.7 cm

Condition: Superb impression of this early print with its margins as published in near pristine condition. The sheet has wrinkling from the printing process and there is faint age toning at the extreme edges. There is also a small dark dot imperfection in the paper to the left of the image and the left and right edges of the sheet have irregularities: the lower-left corner is missing and the right edge has been trimmed unevenly. 

Although many of the early emblem prints and books were designed to appeal to an audience of the privileged few who were able to decipher meanings from esoteric symbols, this was not the case with Jacob Cats. He earned his affectionate title of “Father Cats” because his books were accessible in terms of being decipherable to general readers of the time and because the images in his books were engaging to look at and projected meaningful content that we now call euphemistically: home truths. In fact, the impact of Cats’ emblem books was so profound in the Netherlands that Marijke Spies (1999) in Rhetoric, Rhetoricians and Poets: Studies in Renaissance Poetry and Poetics proposes that with regard to Cats “in his endless verses [that] propagated the characteristics, virtues, and duties of the Dutch burgher housewife … No books, apart from the Bible, were so widely read—and listened to when read—as his” (Spies 1999, p. 120).

Monday, 14 April 2014

Gallery Update

Before posting the next and final discussion concerning trees as metaphors, I have been busy adding fresh images to this blog’s galleries that can be accessed by clicking on the set of links to the right of the” Home” button at the top of the page.

For the “Architecture and Ornament” gallery I have posted a lithograph featuring a bouquet-like arrangement of what I assume to be a bundle of fig leaves crowned with a head of maize or corn. Doubtless, this beautiful design has found its way into a woodcarver’s storehouse of motifs.

In the “Figures and Fauna” gallery you’ll see the best set of ears around. They are simply stunning—if you have a leaning to drawings steeped in the traditions of the nineteenth-century academies.

You must have a look at the “Landscapes and Flora” gallery as I’ve posted Claude Lorrain’s last etching. It has all the hallmarks of an artist at the peak of his confidence. Just look at the final image where I show the details of the print to see what I mean: no pretention just mastery of “feeling” a subject in space. Also in this gallery there is the print that made Adolphe Appian famous. Whether it is his best or simply a wonderfully moody print can only be answered by the viewer. Nevertheless, I have included a quote that places this print as the image that marked Appian's change from “finding” himself as an artist to being one.

The “Books” gallery now has a rare copy of Jacob Strutt’s book with a name that only the author himself could love: Sylva Britannica; or, Portraits of Forest Trees, Distinguished for Their Antiquity, Magnitude, or Beauty.

Finally the gallery for the weird and wonderful, “Object and Artefacts”, did have a curiously interesting Victorian executive toy on offer but it has been snapped up and now only the pictures remain.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Trees as Metaphors (Part 3)

There is a long history of trees symbolising attributes such as strength, resilience and the essence of nature, but how have trees been used metaphorically in images (i.e. used pictorially to “explain” ideas)?

In the last instalment of this discussion I concentrated on artists’ metaphorical use of trees to visually “explain” various feelings of mood experienced in landscape. For the present discussion I will shift the focus and initially address how artists have used trees to articulate, in visual terms, their vision of a spiritual presence emanating from trees; or at least, how artists have portrayed some special trees in a way that communicates a unique tree-essence that makes them noble (i.e. to “stand out” as exemplar trees worthy of respect). Later I will offer personal insights into how artists have imbued trees with human attributes and how even the smallest elements of a tree can communicate significant and complex meanings.

Regarding the use of trees to illustrate the idea of nobility, there is a perfect publication featuring this treatment: Jacob George Strutt’s (1784–1867) Sylva Britannica; Or, Portraits Of Forest Trees Distinguished For Their Antiquity, Magnitude, Or Beauty (1822) featuring etchings of significant/well-known trees in the English and Scottish countryside (a digital version of this book is available for viewing/downloading at [viewed 21 March 2014]) and a copy of this book is available in this blog’s “Books” gallery [see the line of links at the top of the blog]).

One of the more arresting of Strutt’s etchings in Sylva Britannica is The Crawley Elm—Sussex (shown below). Strutt viewed elms in general as having the “right” tree attributes for them to complement the nobility of country gentry. In fact, Strutt even goes as far as describing the elm’s attributes as if this type of tree were an actual person of noble standing:
Loving society, yet averse from a crowd, delighting in fresh air, and in room to expand its roots, and affording its aid to all the weaker plants in its vicinity that may seek its support, it presents a pleasing emblem of the class of country gentlemen, whose abodes it is oftenest found to adorn and protect. 
(Strutt 1822, p. 59)

Jacob George Strutt (1784/90–1864/67)
The Crawley Elm—Sussex, 1822
Published by Strutt (1822 [–1826]) in Sylva Britannica; Or, Portraits Of Forest Trees Distinguished For Their Antiquity, Magnitude, Or Beauty. London
Etching on cream wove paper
(sheet) 43.1 x 35.5 cm; (plate) 38.2 x 31.4 cm

Condition: Strong and well-inked impression with small margins. The sheet is in good condition (i.e. there is no foxing, or tears or scuffing) but the sheet is lightly irradiated and with dustiness appropriate to the age of the print (i.e. the sheet is slightly darkened).  The sheet is loose (i.e. not glued to a support sheet). I am selling this print for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $182 AUD. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.

This print has been sold

As expressed in his insight about their propriety, Strutt’s vision of elms clearly leans more to the poetics of moral virtues rather than to biological science. Moreover, this leaning guides the way that he portrays the elm at Crawley. For instance, in the etching, Strutt’s chosen angle-of-view gives an eye-level, front-on, centrally aligned and unimpeded view of the tree (i.e. there are no obstacles obscuring a “bull’s eye” view right to the centre of the composition where the tree is depicted). This formal compositional arrangement denotes the tree as special—in the sense that it is visually significant—while the gap of pictorial space between the viewer and the tree, casts the tree as having social status.

I understand that this curious anointment of social status by a gap in space may, at first, seem far-fetched, but the size of the gap is an important visual device employed by artists for depicting people with social status. It equates with “public space”—as opposed to “intimate space”—that dignitaries leave between common folk and themselves. By extension of the same principle with the elm, the gap casts the tree with an aura of untouchable status. Of course, this reading may never have passed Strutt’s mind as he shows a child climbing the elm’s trunk (see detail above) suggesting that the tree is not an unassailable entity but rather a welcoming regal host.

With regard to Strutt’s vision of presenting this tree as “a pleasing emblem” of country gentry, the portrayed door sealing the entrance to a homely abode within the tree’s trunk is difficult to overlook. After all, the idea that there is a space within the trunk framed by an entrance door must have been a fascinating attraction for the local folk. This feature alone sets it apart from other trees, but the fact that the door is closed also projects a hint of exclusivity in that access to this tree’s heart is removed from common folk.

As may be appropriate for tree of magisterial stature, Strutt not only draws the viewer’s attention to the elm’s height through a comparison of its size with other features surrounding it—especially the diminutive size of the figures and the hay-cart shown in the details below—but also his treatment of the tree itself connotes a commanding presence. Note, for example, in the detail below how Strutt has aligned the marks representing the tree’s foliage so the each stroke helps to lead the eye in spiralling rhythms around the trunk, as if the trunk were a magnetic core holding the space encircling it in check.

The Yew Tree—Ankerwyke, Middlesex (shown below) is another of Strutt’s etchings from Sylva Britannica. Here, the idea of rhythms connoting an aura of presence is taken a stage further. In this print Strutt portrays the yew tree as if it were an explosion in the landscape. Moreover, he uses the contrast of field workers peacefully engaged in their rural tasks set against the upward lines of the trunk and the outward twisting lines of branches. For me, this contrast conveys a sense of the tree’s dynamic energy within the calm of its surroundings.

Jacob George Strutt (1784/90–1864/67)
The Yew Tree—Ankerwyke, Middlesex, 1822
Published by Strutt (1822 [–1826]) in Sylva Britannica; Or, Portraits Of Forest Trees Distinguished For Their Antiquity, Magnitude, Or Beauty. London
Etching on chine-collé fine India paper laid on wove paper
(sheet) 34.3 x 40.7; (plate) 31.5 x 38.1 cm

Condition: Crisp and well-inked impression with small margins. The sheet is loose (i.e. not glued to a support sheet) and is in very good condition with minimal signs of handling. I am selling this print for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $180 AUD. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.

This print has been sold

Also from a personal standpoint, the explosive presence of Strutt’s yew tree is sustained by the shapes of the two trees shown to the left side of it. By this I mean that the structure of the horizontally layered foliage of the tree on the far-left supports the idea of lateral forces emanating from the yew, while the tree in the distance is like an arrow-head drawing attention to the explosive arrangement of the yew’s upward projecting rhythms (see diagram below).

Strutt may not have viewed his treatment of the yew in the way that I have proposed, but then again his vision of trees is underpinned by his personal experience and associations of English trees’ virtues:
what can afford more delightful contrast in landscape than the giant strength of the Oak, with the flexile elegance of the ash; the stately tranquillity of the elm, with the tremulous lightness of the poplar; the bright and varied foliage of the beech, or sycamore, with the funereal majesty of the cedar or the yew; all differing in form and character, as in colour .… (Strutt 1822, pp. 5–6)

Let me now move to how artists have imbued trees with human features and attributes to communicate metaphorical meanings. In terms of unambiguous use of trees morphed with human anatomy, some artists have been very explicit. For example, Arthur Rackham’s (1867–1939) beautiful illustrations often feature anthropomorphised trees, such as The Hawthorne Tree (1922) and Suddenly the branches twined round her and turned into two arms (1917) (both of these ink and watercolour illustrations may be seen in the post, Paper Trees [24 March 2011] from the blog Mud 'n Art: and The Monkey Tree (shown below) by W.H.J. Boot (1848–1918) who also wrote the book, Trees, and how to paint them in water-colours (1883) (this book may be viewed at:  [viewed 28 March 2104]). Perhaps the most memorable visualisation of trees as people is the famous scene from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) featuring the character, Treebeard, and middle-earth forest folk, the Ents (my apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien if my description of his characters is imprecise) as shown in the clip below.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers —Treebeard Rage Scene

William Henry James Boot (1848–1918)
The Monkey Tree
Wood engraving
From Picturesque Europe: The British Isles: With Illustrations on Steel and Wood by the Most Eminent Artists. Cassell & Company Ltd., London, p. 148.

Regarding artists’ use of anthropomorphised trees, I was given a very interesting insight during a chat this afternoon with my gardener—an affectionate name for John who is married to Isabelle who I affectionately call “my cook” mentioned in an earlier post. What the gardener revealed to me is that artists avoid showing the tops of trees when they are morphed into tree-people, as tops of trees don’t carry expressive meaning and they make the tree too large for practical purposes. This comment arose from his disappointment on first seeing the Ents in the clip shown above as his vision of them, based on reading the book, is that they should have leafy tops like all the other trees in the forest.

I suspect that the gardener may be correct, but, as shown by Strutt’s portraits of trees, metaphorical meanings may be projected even with leafy topped trees.  One print that illustrates how important the top of a tree can be is Eugène Bléry’s (1805–87) large etching, Le Vieux Chêne à la Figure Assise (shown below).

Eugène Stanislaus Alexandre Bléry (1805–87)
Le Vieux Chêne à la Figure Assise, 1844
Etching on chine collé
(sheet) 51.6 x 40.5; (plate) 41.7 x 33 cm; (image) 40 x 32 cm
Inscribed in margin: (lower-left) “EBlery delt. & sculpt.; (lower-right) “aqua forti 1844”
Description by the British Museum regarding this print:
“Landscape with in the right foreground a man resting on a river bank, under an oak tree; beyond, at left, a man and two cows.” (see [viewed 30 March 2014])

Condition: Strong, well-inked impression with margins. The sheet has minimal signs of handling, but there is light foxing that appears to have been treated/cleaned as the foxing is pale and almost negligible. The chine collé also appears to have been removed in the past and reattached to the support sheet as the bottom corner which must have been printed with a crease has now been flattened perfectly and there also seems to be some abrasions/tears in the sky (but I could be wrong about this). I am selling this print for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $290 AUD. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.

This print has been sold

To be precise, however, the expressive potential of the large oak tree’s top portrayed in the print needs the rest of the tree and its surroundings to project a negotiable meaning. For instance, my reading of the tree and the figure resting at its base is that the relationship between them is a metaphor for a transition of mindset from temporal concerns to spiritual transcendence (i.e. a change from thinking about everyday issues, such as herding cattle as depicted in the distance, to a state of reverie and dreamy disengagement). To arrive at such a reading is all about perceiving correlations between different parts of the composition.

As an example of my own process of correlation, I first noticed the oak tree and then the figure resting among its roots. This initial set of observed features is not, of course, sufficient to construct the metaphor about a transition in mindset. The magical ingredient that prompted me to conceive such a meaning happened next when I noticed a figure herding cattle. At this point my mind conceived a relationship between the two figures—the one in the distance and the figure under the tree: they are both herdsmen as they are both holding a staff and wore similar clothes. I then concocted a narrative based on the further away herdsman looking over at the resting one: the further away herdsman is displeased with the passivity of the resting one. This mini narrative may be simple conjecture but it led to the next thought: what could the resting herdsman be thinking about? And another thought: what is the further away herdsman thinking that the resting herdsman is thinking about. At this juncture of reflexive thinking, the framing of the metaphor began to materialise. The oak tree, in terms of its structure and upward spiralling rhythm of limbs culminating in the single dead branch “pointing” skywards at the top, was perceived by me as an analogue for a change in mindset rather than being simply a tree.

No doubt other viewers may have different reading of this print but my intention is not to argue a case for how the image should be interpreted but rather that small details make a big difference in projecting meaning.

To bring this discussion to a close, I wish to draw attention to another very large and rare etching, The Gipsies (shown below), executed by one of the kings of landscape imagery, Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88). (Note that the term “Gipsy,” and the more common spelling “Gypsy,” for Romani people has unfortunate connotations and can been used in a derogatory way and so I prefer to use the term “traveller” even though this term encompasses a much broader group of people.)

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88)
in collaboration with Joseph Wood (1720–63/64)
The Gipsies (begun 1753-4; 1759)
Etching and Engraving on wove paper
Inscribed in margin: (lower-left) “Painted & Etch’d by T: Gainsborough.”;
(lower-centre) “The Gipsies / Published by J. Boydell Engraver, in Cheapside London 1764.”
(lower-right) “Engraved and Finish’d by J. Wood.”
Republished state (Boydell) 1764
(sheet) 52.1 x 45.8 cm; (plate) 50.2 x 44.6 cm; (image) 47.5 x 41.8 cm
Comment by the curator at the British Museum regarding this print:
Text from 'Gainsborough and Reynolds in the BM', BM 1984 cat.10:
The etching records a lost picture by Gainsborough that was painted c. 1753-4 for an Ipswich patron (Waterhouse 887). An earlier and radically different version of the composition was slashed by Gainsborough in a temper and left unfinished; this was given by the artist to his friend Joshua Kirby and it is now in the Tate Gallery (Waterhouse 864; Hayes plate 33). It has not previously been observed that a study for the head of the donkey is in the British Museum (Oo,2.14, Hayes 857).
This impression
[see] shows the plate as it was left by Gainsborough, with all the lines etched. It was later reworked with the graver by J. Wood and published in March 1759, and again republished in 1764, this time by Boydell. Hayes states that "no impressions of the original etching by Gainsborough are now known", which can only mean that in the state exhibited in Clifford et al., 1978 has already been reworked with a graver. This is incorrect, for there is no trace of any such reworking. Since Hayes' book was published, an impression of an unknown earlier state, before the addition of some horizontal lines to the sky, and shading in the upper foliage of the tree, has been sold at Christie's (30 July 1975, lot 316)
(See painting of the same subject at Tate Britain, London
(See Hayes, John 1972, Gainsborough as Printmaker. Yale University Press, London, pp. 38–41.)

Condition: This very rare print is a well-inked impression with small margins. The sheet has light fold marks to the upper-left corner, a repaired tear to the lower right side (there is conservator tape verso) and the upper-left and lower-right corners are reinforced verso with conservator tape. The sheet is lightly aged by time and there is scattered pale foxing. I am selling this very rare print for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $490 AUD. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.

This print has been sold

What I find fascinating about this print is Gainborough’s use of a single dead branch jutting out from an otherwise healthy oak tree to give metaphorical meaning to a group of travellers and their animals gathered beneath. Although other viewers may see the tree and its dead limb differently, the meaning that I perceive is that the travellers are alienated from a nearby town symbolised by a stone tower depicted in the distance.

This personal reading is based on correlating and constructing meaning from three critical phenomena. First, the dead branch is illuminated by the same shaft of daylight that illuminates the travellers. From my standpoint, this shared lighting pictorially links the branch with the travellers. Second, the compositional placement of the branch is midway between the travellers and a far distant tower. This arrangement catches my eye and raises the subconscious query: why did Gainsborough place the limb in that position? Third, the forked end of the branch directs my eye in two different directions with one of the forked ends pointing to the travellers and the other pointing to the tower. For me this forking of the branch and the direction that the two ends face suggests that there is a conceptual connection between the travellers and the tower. Going further, the angular shape of the forked limb and its pale tone set against a dark background triggers my mind to see an association with forked lightening. And, by extension of this association, that the connection between the travellers and the tower/town is not a warm and friendly relationship.

In the next and final instalment concerning trees as metaphors, I will discuss the seldom explored but fascinating world of emblem prints.