A Certain Tree

A few years ago I spent some time reading The Golden Bough by James Frazer. He starts volume one with an extraordinary story set on the shores of Lake Nemi, a flooded volcano in the Alban Hills just south of Rome. The story describes the macabre succession to the priesthood of the Temple of the Goddess Diana. His fascination with this story forms the starting point for a vast comparative study of religion, ritual and magic. He describes the universal progression from belief in magic on to religion and then to science. In the same way that C. G. Jung found that we may do different things when we are awake but that when we dream, we all dream the same, Frazer found that religion and magic also belong to a collective. He writes a good deal about trees, too. The old world was covered in trees and of course, if we left the landscape alone for long enough, it would revert to forest so it’s no surprise that the old gods were tree gods and that, all over the world ritual and magic grew in partnership with the trees.

As a child I spent a good deal of my life up trees, we had some good trees in the vicarage garden and, away from parental supervision, I was mostly up a tree somewhere . I started to draw trees at the same time and, although now I paint many different subjects, I am always painting trees. They’re never far away. 

Since starting this collection of paintings I‘m surprised, perhaps reassured by how often trees seem to crop up. Popular culture (The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones) features trees cast in godlike roles, trees are adopted as symbols of permanence by countries and political parties, many of the old rituals live on with the May pole and the Christmas tree. 

Trees still seem to resonate quite deeply.

As a landscape painter I’m always looking for verticals. There’s never any shortage of horizontals but with warp you need weft and without verticals the landscape doesn’t hold together. Trees are the verticals, they are the leaven in the landscape.

I started work on this collection of paintings with a trip to Sri Lanka, South Africa and Zambia. I like travelling, it’s hard to work outside in February and a trip always shakes things up nicely. With my son Luke as travelling companion, critic and sous chef I painted Baobabs, Banyan Trees, Tamarinds and Figs. We read about, talked about and examined all sorts of beautiful specimens, always working outside, directly from the subject in all kinds of weather. Luke calls the paintings insect graveyards because so many bugs died in the wet paint! In the wilder places we found the landscape filled with the relics of dead as well as living trees, very different from the tidy domesticated landscape of the home counties. 

I finished the project on the shore of Lake Nemi and found myself trying to remember what type of tree Frazer had referred to in his account of the story. From the second floor terrace of a hotel in the village of Nemi I found myself painting a view of the lake framed by a single tree. I had a vague feeling Frazer might have referred to an oak.

He writes as follows….

“In the sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering wearily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to the office by slaying the priest, and having slaid him, he retained the office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier. The post which he held by this precarious tenure carried with it the title of king…” Rex Nemorensis.

The reason no species is given by Frazer is because the tree is the goddess Diana, to give the tree a name would be a distraction, It is ‘a certain tree’.

Somehow trees do seem to be more than just trees.

Rousham, October 2017

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