Oakability, or, the art of defying gravity
EVEN the sound of its name - OAK - thuds weightily on the ear: a tree of no nonsense, this, with a trunk like an elephant leg, muscular branches, thick-fingered twigs, and tough little fruit resembling hard-boiled eggs with berets. The oak can grow steadily over centuries to become a massive landmark in maturity, solid, venerable, and revered almost as if it was a person. Of all trees - particularly, perhaps, in Britain - oaks are the symbolic measure of sturdy withstanding, of dauntless longevity. Sir Thomas Browne pointed out that even ``old families last not three oaks.''Skip to next paragraph
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The iron-hardness of the tree's wood is proverbial. A thunderbolt that cleaves an oak - as Shakespeare has it in ``King Lear'' - is, by implication, stupendously destructive. The hollows and wrinkles, furrows and knots, of the oak have endlessly fascinated artists and poets: The 19th-century visionary artist Samuel Palmer tried to draw (and described in words) ``the grasp and grapple of the roots, the muscular belly and shoulders, the twisted sinews'' of ancient oaks in Lullingstone Park. Edmund Spenser in ``The Faerie Queen'' (1596) described the ``ragged snubbes and knottie graine'' of a club made of oak, and Edmund Burke (two centuries later) talked with sublime ponderosity of the oak's ``nodosities.'' Shakespeare, with a countryman's knowledge of the difficulty of splitting its logs, had called it ``the unwedgeable and gnarled Oak.''
To Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 19th-century New England, ``the single mark of supremacy'' that ``distinguishes this tree'' was that, unlike the other trees, it did not ``shirk the work of resisting gravity.'' ``It chooses,'' he said, ``the horizontal direction for its limbs, so that their whole weight may tell; and then stretches them fifty or sixty feet.... To slant upward another degree would mark infirmity of purpose; to bend downwards, weakness of organization.'' He can hardly have been talking about all the branches of every oak - not only is it a kind of tree famous for specimens of distinct individuality, some tall and stately, some rounded and majestic, some widely sheltering, but there are also about 300 different species in the world. It is, however, intriguing that his observations have been echoed recently by the British sculptor Kenneth Armitage.
WHO else has made serious sculpture in appreciation of the oak's peculiar qualities? Living in London, the Yorkshire-born Armitage has visited Richmond Park sporadically since his art school days, as ``the nearest refuge from city life.'' He writes that one day in 1975 he suddenly noticed characteristics in the park's oaks which he had previously taken for granted: their ``heavily textured trunks, the almost electric jerky right-angle growth throughout, and massive, horizontal, widely-extended lower boughs.'' A period of ``sustained excitement'' with mostly weekly visits to the park followed, lasting six years. It was ``all the more pleasing for its sudden beginning. The model was always the oak - other trees, however beautiful, had not the same strength of character.''
Some of his bronzes resulting from this study are being shown this year in a traveling exhibition in Britain called ``The Blasted Oak.'' This show, looking at the oak in European art, was the inspired idea of Ron Clarke, the keeper of fine art at Coventry's Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. It traveled to different galleries around Britain.