Friday 16 August 2013

Hockney, Elgar and dead trees

A Bigger Picture, the exhibition of David Hockney’s landscapes, especially those of his native Yorkshire, was almost overwhelming in its scale. The paintings were mostly huge and many had such bright colours that it took some time for me to get over a sense of shock. Being a traditionalist, I liked his more naturalistic works and I found Hockney’s occasionally vivid palette to be too much for my conventional taste. There was an exception, the painting entitled Winter Timber. It was the bleakness of the subject that I found fascinating, with felled wood stacked up and ready to be taken out on a track passing through leafless, wintry trees and over the horizon in the far distance. Alongside the felled timber is a dead tree stump, an icon which appears out of place. We all put our own interpretations on what we see and for me the painting represents death and the achievements of each of our lives, which will be removed and forgotten. However, the one tree stump remains as a symbol - but of what? Of death certainly, but also of the existence beyond death of works of art (the stump that clearly meant a lot to Hockney has since been destroyed by vandals).
There is something about trees, and especially dead trees, that moves us. They are larger than we are and decay more slowly, remaining sometimes for decades or even centuries, as reminders of a past life. We know that one group of dead trees was of particular significance to another great English artist, the composer Sir Edward Elgar. At the end of the 1910s, Elgar became disillusioned and miserable after the devastating events of the First World War and the ending of the values of the Edwardian era. His last major work, the Cello Concerto, reflects this in having a sense of yearning for earlier times. It was also a time when Lady Elgar, his greatest support, suffered from illness and the composer must have felt intimations of mortality (to borrow from Wordsworth). Three chamber works were completed by Elgar at about the same time as the Cello Concerto and these all have an eerie, mysterious quality. We find out from Billy Reed, the violinist and good friend of Elgar’s, that a group of dead trees near Brinkwells, a cottage in Sussex that provided an escape for the Elgars, influenced the composer strongly at this time: 1

A favourite short walk from the house up through the woods brought one clean out of the everyday world to a region prosaically called Flexham Park, which might have been the Wolf’s Glen in Der Freischütz. The strangeness of the place was created by a group of dead trees which, apparently struck by lightning, had very gnarled and twisted branches stretching out in an eerie manner as if beckoning one to come nearer, To walk up there in the evening when it was just getting dark was to get “the creeps”..

   ..The rather oriental and fatalistic themes in the quintet, and the air of sadness in the quartet, like the wind sighing in those dead trees - I can see it all whenever I play any of these works, or hear them played. Elgar was such a nature-lover and had such an impressionable mind that he could not fail to be influenced by such surroundings. There was so powerful a fascination for him there that he was always strolling up to look at the scene again.

In Portrait of Elgar, 2 Michael Kennedy records that Lady Elgar referred to these late chamber works as “wood magic” and she made direct reference to the dead trees as having an influence on the Quintet. It was the “curse” of being struck by lightning that provided the force - these were not trees that had died naturally, but ones which had been killed by an outside force. You can hear the mysterious quality of the work in this clip of a fine performance:

So, two great artists inspired by dead trees; one by cut timber and a single stump and the other by a group of dead trees killed by lightning. Of the very large number of trees in Great Britain, it was these that acted as inspirations. For all of us, dead trees remind us of what we leave behind, whether we are great artists or not.

1 W.H.Reed (1936) Elgar as I knew him. London, Victor Gollancz.

2 Michael Kennedy (1968) Portrait of Elgar. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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