Some artists only saw the forest for the trees

In the history of art, trees have often been short-changed. It's as if the masters left such "insignificant" minutiae to specialist botanical illustrators. Frequently trees, in paintings by the old masters, are just any old combination of trunks, branches, and feathery foliage – background scenery. Even John Constable, whose landscapes have remarkable veracity, once mentioned being at particular pains in a painting to make sure the trees were botanically truthful. He implied that normally he didn't take that degree of care.

In the later 19th century, though, some artists relished minute observation of nature almost obsessively. The English "Pre-Raphaelites," for example, were fastidiously accurate, down to the smallest detail. They not only described the silhouette of a tree, they more or less attempted to paint its every leaf and bud.

Some kinds of tree were probably easier to depict recognizably than others. The horse chestnut, oak, beech, silver birch, for instance, were harder to turn into generalizations. But the European sycamore (a large maple called Acer pseudoplatanus), loved by some, despised by others, but mainly ignored, hardly seems to have interested painters at all. One Victorian artist painted its winter trunks. Another, Ford Maddox Brown, gazing intently out of his window in Hampstead, London, scrupulously painted a small sycamore. Its branch structure is correct, its leaves are maple-shaped, and its highest, new summer growth against the sky is unmistakable.

In the following century, this degree of accuracy was largely disdained in art.

There were honorable exceptions. Stanley Spencer clearly felt a compulsion to paint every leaf on a tree. But it is to analytical botanical artists, and book illustrators like Agnes Miller Parker, that one must turn to find close-up, incisive appreciation of the finest characteristics of tree species. Shown here are two exquisite wood engravings by Parker, from 1936, that illustrate the point. In them she celebrates the almost surreal forms of sycamore buds, known to botanists, but overlooked by virtually everyone else, including most other artists.

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