IT'S almost a clich'e. The oak, of all trees, is ``King of the Woods'' or ``Lord of the Forests.'' As Richard Payne Knight put it in a poem called ``The Landscape'' of 1794, King of the woods! whose towering branches trace Each form of majesty, and line of grace; . . .
Minor poets have stood in awe before the oak. So have major ones. Keats, in ``Hyperion,'' sonorously calls oaks ``. . .green-robed senators of mighty woods . . . .'' And artists have tried to invest their art with the tree's mighty scale. In the early 19th century Samuel Palmer drew what he called the ``rifts and furrows,'' the ``grasp and grapple'' of the roots of a large oak tree in Kent, but found it impossible to match the poet Milton's description, ``monumental oak.'' By that ``one epithet,'' Palmer wrote, the poet had drawn ``an oak of the largest girth I ever saw.''
If he had seen Hearne's watercolor of about 40 years earlier, he might have thought it a worthy challenger.
Hearne belongs to the reasonable, measured world of 18th-century English taste. As such, he has not generally been given ``a good press.'' Though sometimes described as a ``leading topographical draughtsman of his day,'' he usually features in art histories as not much more than a significant, quickly absorbed influence on the early Turner. Turner's overwhelming development cast a shadow over such a predecessor's comparatively tame achievement.
Walter Thornbury, for instance, wrote that Hearne's ``fondness for antiquities'' led him ``to study landscape and Gothic architecture, and to the taste he thus fostered we owe much of Turner's subsequent loitering among ruins.'' Then he added deflatingly that ``Hearne's manner was small and careful, and his colour pale and neutral, with a uniformity of buff stone, cold green trees, and pale, sketchy sky. As a man, he was distinguished by a good judgment and a correct, retentive memory'' -- faint praise indeed.
A more recent writer on Turner is even more dismissive. This is Graham Reynolds. Talking about Turner's early patron, Dr. Monro, who is traditionally praised for giving Turner and his friend Girtin encouragement as young artists by employing them to copy old masters, Reynolds observes: ``Recent investigation has removed some of the glamour from Dr. Monro.'' He criticizes Monro's philanthropic motives, and even questions his taste. In spite of his recognition of Turner, Reynolds argues, he could surely have had no ``uncanny prescience for quality,'' since ``his own favorite artists were Hearne and Laporte.''
Nevertheless, the poor maligned Hearne's ``Oak Tree'' (though certainly limited in color, like much watercolor painting of that period) suggests that he deserves a better reputation. It is not the only work by him with a boldness of design and structural conviction striking enough to refute allegations of a merely careful manner. But he does seem to have been particularly moved by the massiveness and surging growth of this old parkland oak. His treatment of it is scrupulous; but the painting has an overall relish that is far from insipid. His ability to make the particular subserve the general -- to let the tree dominate its components, to allow ``branch'' to act for ``branches,'' leaf-mass for multiplicity of leaves -- is characteristic of his work, and of his period. Yet small, telling details of observation are not overlooked.
It happens that this watercolor belonged to, and was painted for, Richard Payne Knight. It is one of a number of watercolors Hearne made for Knight recording his Herefordshire estate. Knight may not have been the world's most memorable poet, but he is remembered today as an arbiter of taste, one of the prominent figures of the 18th-century trend known as ``the picturesque.'' This trend had wealthy landowners all over Britain ``improving'' their estates -- altering them radically to conform with a less artificial picture of ideal landscape. The picturesque theory, or vision, was opposed to geometrical formality and neat, clipped patterns, in garden or landscape design.
Richard Payne Knight improved his own estate and hired Hearne to record his improvements. He even had him illustrate his poem ``The Landscape.'' Both poem and illustrations were designed to show that Knight had an advanced view of the ``picturesque,'' that he wanted to go much further than others in introducing a natural wildness into landscape gardening.
Specifically he was out to criticize the style of ``Capability'' Brown, which, he wrote, produced landscapes ``wrap't all o'er in everlasting green,'' making ``one dull, vapid, smooth, unvaried scene.'' Instead he wanted things to be overgrown and profuse, with ``native . . . plants in wild obscurity and rude neglect''; he wanted nature's roughness instead of Brown's gentle smoothness, variety and irregularity instead of expected, trim curves.
His three-book poem, developing these ideas, is a strange mix of gentlemanly verse, vigorous opinion, and gardening advice. In the third book he goes into trees -- and not surprisingly it is the great oak that heads his list. He sees its ``giant arms'' and ``deep masses of clust'ring foliage spread'' as much more desirable than ``meagre larches'' or ``blue Scotch firs.'' And -- almost as if he had looked at Hearne's watercolor for inspiration -- he sees the grandeur of oaks even in age and ruin as admirable.
Both he and Hearne were much struck -- well before the Romantic period proper -- with the ``romantic ruin.'' Here they transfer the notion from building to tree. Hearne shelters a seated man in the dwarfing vault of a gigantic rotten old stump; and his patron, scorning the ``prim improver'' who would ``cut away/ Each hoary branch that verges to decay,'' makes the following recommendation in his verse: If years unnumber'd, or the lightning's stroke, Have bar'd the summit of the lofty oak.. . . Entire and sacred let the ruin stand, Nor fear the pruner's sacrilegious hand. . . .''
As poetry it's hardly grand, as arboriculture questionable, but as picturesque theory -- and Hearne clearly and dramatically agrees -- it is sound and impressive enough. Christopher Andreae