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Must Hearne remain in Turner's shade?

By Christopher Andreae / May 1, 1985

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; . . .

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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.