Pruning the Brogdale Bramley

Bramley’s Seedling apples on the tree at the National Fruit Collection, Brogdale (photo Wikimedia Commons)

Venturing out on my first horticultural visit of the year, last Saturday I headed for Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection just outside Faversham in Kent.  February being an ideal time to prune apple trees, my purpose was to attend a pruning demonstration, whereby a large Bramley apple tree left unpruned for the last six years would be re-shaped.

Bramley’s Seedling is still one of the UK’s best known cooking apples.  The original tree was raised in 1809 from seed planted by a young girl Mary Ann Brailsford in her Nottinghamshire cottage garden.  By the 1840s the cottage (and apple tree) were owned by one Matthew Bramley, a butcher, who allowed cuttings to be taken for commercial propagation by local nurseryman Henry Merryweather on condition that the trees bore his name.

The Bramley apple tree produces delicious fruit, but has some special requirements for successful cultivation.  They are vigorous trees, needing a large space to grow well and are triploids meaning that they need two separate apple varieties nearby to ensure successful pollination.

The Bramley apple tree that greeted us at Brogdale was a confusing prospect – tall, asymmetric, with an over-abundance of sprawling branches.  It was clear that pruning was required, but how to begin with such a tangle of growth?

Our guide, the horticulturalist and fruit tree specialist John Easton encouraged us to stand back from the tree, walk around it and examine it from every angle.  We should also try to imagine the tree as it might appear from above – ideally up to five major branches would radiate out like the spokes of a wheel.

John identified two main problems with the tree.  There were large branches shading the centre of the tree, preventing new shoots from developing, (which would eventually form a framework of new branches).  The tree also had too many lateral shoots, causing the tree to be very congested.

We were then asked to suggest which large branches should come out, and after some deliberation, these branches were marked with tape at their junction with the trunk of the tree.  John emphasised the importance of sticking to a decision about removing branches as a loss of confidence half way through the process could result in a tree that was unbalanced.

Using both a small hand held chainsaw and a pole mounted chainsaw, Martin (John’s assistant for the day) started to remove branches.  John then used a pruning saw and secateurs to thin growth on the branches that we’d decided to keep and raise the level of the lowest of these so the crop would not be splashed with soil and the grass beneath could be mown easily.  Under John’s guidance Martin next removed a vast quantity of 5 year old upright shoots from the centre of the tree, leaving those remaining with enough space to develop and bear fruit.

The pruned tree still had a wide spread, and while it might be tempting to tidy away the tips of the branches to make the tree neater, John explained why this should be avoided in a Bramley.  As a partial tip-bearer, fruit is produced at the ends of the branches, and also on short spurs that appear along the fruiting laterals.  As new, upright shoots develop the weight of the apple crop has the effect of ‘bringing down’ the branches which are quite flexible.  But if the ends are removed this has a stiffening effect on the branch and interrupts the growth pattern of tree.

Finally, John explained the current thinking about the treatment of watershoots, which spring up in great numbers on the main branches and sometimes the tree trunk, where the sap flow is at its greatest.  Rather than remove them all (for aesthetic purposes) he suggested removing a third entirely with a saw, cutting a third back to around three inches with a secateurs and bending in the final third to curtail their upward growth.  He explained that the roughness of the saw cut damaged the tree cells more than a cleaner cut with secateurs, and stopped re-growth more effectively.

Ideally apple trees should be pruned on a three year cycle with a maximum of one third of the growth removed at any one time.  John emphasised the importance of knowing when to stop – although there were more laterals that he could have removed, the danger of damaging the tree after the major work he had carried out was too great.  And so it being time, as John put it, to ‘walk away from the tree’ we finished our day.

A tangle of branches – the tree before pruning.

Having decided which branches to remove, these are marked clearly with tape.

Fruit tree expert John Easton (on the ground) and Martin (on the ladder) discuss which branches are to be removed.

Martin uses a pole chainsaw to take out a vertical branch.

John uses a pruning saw and secateurs to thin fruiting laterals closer to the ground.

Expert cut to thin out growth on a fruiting lateral.

Bark of the Bramley tree in the early February sunshine.

The Brogdale Bramley after pruning.

A fraction of the mass of material from the tree after pruning.

Blossom of the Bramley’s Seedling apple, National Fruit Collection, Brogdale (photo Wikimedia Commons)

Bramley Tree Cottage in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, where the first Bramley apple tree was raised from seed by Mary Ann Brailsford.  Photograph: Alan Murray-Rust Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:

Brogdale Collections – home of the National Fruit Collection including over 2000 apple varieties

The Bramley Seedling Apple – the history of this much loved tree on Wikipedia

Celebrating Karl Foerster

1952 catalogue

Karl Foerster 
9th March 1874 – 27th November 1970

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of plantsman, writer and designer Karl Foerster.  As well as breeding hundreds of perennial plants, Foerster was instrumental in pioneering a planting style that was both naturalistic and sustainable using hardy plants suited to local soil conditions and climate.  His iconic nursery and garden at Potsdam-Bornim near Berlin which he managed from 1910 until 1970 is open to the public as a monument to his life and work.

Thanks to the European Nursery Catalogue Collection which has digitised over forty of Foerster’s catalogues, we have a fascinating record of the range plants he offered for sale, and glimpses of his garden.  His plant lists reveal a mixture of species plants and a range of perennials still very fashionable today, such as heleniums, day lilies, grasses and geraniums.

The Potsdam-Bornim garden (link at the end of this post) estimates that around a third of the plants Foerster developed are still in cultivation.  One of his favourite flowers was Phlox paniculata and he once remarked that a garden without this plant was ‘a mistake’.  He started breeding phlox in the 1930s and his nursery catalogues record pages of varieties, from palest pink to deep red tones.  ‘Düsterlohe’ with its rich purple flowers is still a bestseller.

Some of the catalogues contain planting plans showing customers how they might arrange plants purchased from Foerster.  The plans indicate how many plants of each variety should be used and suggests placing them together in blocks to enhance the effect of their contrasting forms and textures.

After training at the Schwerin Palace Gardens and the Royal Gardening School near Potsdam Foerster established his first nursery at Berlin-Westend in 1903 and re-located it to Potsdam-Bornin in 1910.  The garden produced potatoes and vegetables during the second World War, but in 1945 the Soviet military administration gave permission to operate as a nursery once more.  Foerster’s daughter Marianne oversaw the continuation of the garden from the 1990s until her death in 2010.

Foerster’s catalogues list plants developed by other famous nurserymen such as Georg Arendts in Germany and Bonne Ruys (father of the designer Mien Ruys) in the Netherlands.  Their names reveal a network of influential horticulturalists and designers exchanging plants and ideas.  Foerster’s influence can still  be detected in the work of designers today – here in the UK Beth Chatto’s garden and plant catalogues seem to share the same spirit with their plant selections, as do the palettes of plants used by Dan Pearson and Sarah Price.

The grass Calamogrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ was named after Foerster as a tribute to his work.  With its upright plumes turning a pale straw colour in winter, this plant is still a key component in contemporary planting schemes and it seems appropriate that the plant named for him remains so popular.

Foerster attached great importance to the garden as a haven for nature and his company logo, a stylised daisy-like flower surrounded by three butterflies, underlines this.  Fifty years on, Foerster’s philosophy of planting is more relevant today than ever, with our current challenge to create gardens that are friendly to wildlife and the environment.

Karl Foerster pictured in his 1964 catalogue.

Peony from the 1972 catalogue

Planting plans from the 1972 catalogue

Planting plan for shade, showing the canopy of two trees and stepping stones through the planting

Foerster’s logo – a daisy surrounded by butterflies

1972 catalogue

1957 catalogue

Brightly coloured phlox from the 1957 catalogue

Front Cover of the 1972 catalogue showing Phlox paniculata ‘Eva Foerster’ in the foreground with ‘Aida’, ‘Flammenkuppel’ and ‘Fullhorn’.

Doesn’t this planting remind you of Beth Chatto’s garden?

I like the German word for water lily – Seerose.

Perennial grasses from Foerster’s 1972 catalogue: Miscanthus sacchariflorus ‘Robustus’, Cortaderia selloana, Pennisetum compressum, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’, Panicum virgatum ‘Rotstrahlbusch, Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Stricta’

Chrysanthemum x hortorum ‘Schwytz’, Ligularia hybrid, Helenium ‘Feuersiegel’ and Erigeron ‘Wuppertal’ from the 1967 catalogue

An order form from the 1967 catalogue

The garden at Potsdam Bornim

Molinia altissima from the 1967 catalogue

Further reading:

European Nursery Catalogue Collection

Karl Foerster (Wikipedia)

Potsdam-Bornim (Garden Visit)

Potsdam-Bornim website

Bringing in the Green

Bringing Home Christmas from The Book of Christmas by Thomas Kibble Hervey. First published in 1836, this 1888 version is made available by the University of California Libraries via archive.org

Our understanding of Christmas and New Year celebrations in late Georgian England (and earlier) owes an enormous debt to The Book of Christmas by Thomas Kibble Hervey (1799 – 1859). Published in 1836 Hervey’s survey of the festive season examines in detail everything from the food people ate and the carols they sang, to a multitude of annual local events.

Bringing evergreen branches inside to decorate our houses in wintertime is still a much loved tradition.  Hervey allocates several pages of his book to these decorations and their importance in seasonal celebrations:

‘One of the most striking signs of the season, and which meets the eye in all directions, is that which arises out of the ancient and still familiar practice of adorning our houses and churches with evergreens during the continuance of this festival.’

The origins of this ancient custom and its symbolism of renewal are rooted in European folklore, and over time evergreen decorations became incorporated into Christian festivals.  The Puritans briefly rejected these decorations in churches owing to their heathen origins, but Hervey observes that the practice, despite ‘outcry and prohibition’, had once again become as popular as ever.

The illustration for this section of the book shows a country man on his way to market with a cartload of evergreens.  These, according to Hervey, would be used to decorate mantel-pieces and windows, and wreaths would be made for lamps, Christmas candles and for use as table decorations.  He also mentions displays of greenery in markets and shops, observing that, ‘every tub of butter has a sprig of rosemary in its breast.’

Material was gathered both from hedges and ‘winter gardens’ and could include holly, rosemary, bay, mistletoe and ivy – but was not restricted to these plants.  Yew and cypress are mentioned as well as box, pine, fir and even myrtle where it was available.

A fourteenth century song he describes is interesting for mentioning holly and ivy as Christmas decoration.  The song confirms the precedence of the holly, which is brought inside while ivy is confined to outdoor use:

 ‘Nay Ivy!  Nay it shall not be, I wys;
Let Holy have the maystry, as the manner ys.

Holy stond in the halle, fayre to behold;
Ivy stond without the doore: she is full sore a cold.’

Written before the Christmas tree became popular in England, Hervey relates a popular custom from Germany and Sicily in which

‘.. a large bough is set up in the principal room, the smaller branches of which are hung with little presents suitable to the different members of the household.’

The British Library cites the popularity of his book as a factor in the revival of Christmas celebrations in the 1840s and their continuation through the Victorian period.  Robert Seymour’s accompanying illustrations are a fascinating record of home and street life in the mid 1830s.  Hervey’s enthusiasm for the festive season is infectious – even if Christmas is not your favourite time of year, I do recommend a dip into this book – links below.

The Book of Christmas features illustrations by Robert Seymour

Robert Seymour records in minute detail the decorations at either end of a gun displayed above the kitchen mantelpiece, .

Evergreen sprigs decorate the mirror and light fitting in this drawing room.

This grandfather clock has been decorated for New Year celebrations.

Further reading:

The Book of Christmas (1888)

The Book of Christmas (1836) The British Library publishes some illustrations from the original version of the book – plus links to other Christmas related publications.

Thomas Kibble Hervey Wikipedia entry

Robert Seymour Wikipedia entry

Inside the Labyrinth at Versailles

The Labyrinth of Versailles (1693) images courtesy of the Getty Research Institute, via archive.org

Amongst the boundless literature concerning the gardens at Versailles, this book from 1693 (first published in 1677) documents the labyrinth from a time when it housed a series of hydraulic statues, illustrating stories from Aesop’s fables.  As visitors followed pathways bordered by high hedges, at intervals they encountered fountains containing brightly painted representations of Aesop’s animal characters.  Jets of water spurting out from their mouths were intended to suggest conversations between the animals.

In the 17th century Aesop’s fables became popular across Europe as educational and moral stories for children.  As the English philosopher John Locke observed, they are ‘apt to delight and entertain a child, yet afford useful reflection to a grown man.’  Locke also observed that children responded to books of these fables better if they contained pictures.

The thirty nine Aesop themed fountains were the project of Louis XIV, installed in the early 1670s for the entertainment of his six year old son, who is said to have learned to read from inscriptions of the stories that accompanied each of the scenes.  Eventually falling into disrepair, they were removed in 1778 by Louis XVI to be replaced by a fashionable ‘jardin Anglais’.

Sebastien Le Clerc’s engravings for the Labarinte de Versailles are remarkable for their architectural precision, visible in the proportions of the hedges and trellis, and the elaborate stonework of the fountains, giving a real sense of what the garden looked like.  Trained as an engineer, Le Clerc (1637 – 1714) was considered such an excellent draughtsman he was persuaded to become a full time commercial artist.  An outline of each story is provided by Charles Perrault (1628 – 1703), pioneer of the modern fairy tale, and a poetic version of the fable by Isaac de Benserade.

Visitors to the labyrinth are also depicted by Le Clerc, (together with their many dogs), but as a gardener myself I was intrigued to see that several engravings include gardeners as they go about their work maintaining the attraction.  A foreman appears to be directing them as they use various tools to trim the hedges including a sickle and a pair of shears, while the clippings are raked up into wheelbarrows to be taken away.  It’s a reminder, also, that in today’s photographs of grand gardens, people are almost always absent.

One of the interesting qualities of rare books like this one is that they sometimes bear the marks of their users – and this example from the Getty Research Institute has certainly seen some rough treatment from a child at some point in the past.  Some pages show pencil scribbles and one of the pages appears to have been torn out.  But was this book intended for children?  Just as Aesop’s fables appeal to both adults and children, perhaps it served a dual purpose – as a souvenir for adults, and as entertainment for children of very wealthy parents.

This plan shows the location of the Aesop themed fountains in the labyrinth.

This list of the thirty nine fables shown in the labyrinth has been embellished with a child’s scribbles in pencil.

Here follow some details of the gardeners at work in the labyrinth:

An axe and short handled mallet are being used here.

Does this little dog belong to the gardeners?

Here a gardener rakes around the feet of a visitor who seems reluctant to get out of the way. What is the gardener next to the wheelbarrow saying to him?

A gardener uses the wheelbarrow as a seat from which to rake the pathway.

One gardener uses a long handled sickle to cut the hedge.

Here the gardening team is out in force, one sweeping the gravel while another cuts the hedge with shears. Meanwhile a dog drinks from the fountain.

Further reading:

Labyrinte de Versailles from the Getty Research Institute, available via archive.org  The stories have been recorded in French, if you wish to listen to them.

The artist and engraver Sebastien le Clerc 1637 – 1714

Wikipedia the Labyrinth of Versailles

The Wikipedia page about Aesop’s Fables is well worth reading Aesop’s Fables

The Woodland Companion

The Oak from The Woodland Companion by John Aikin (1815). Digital version courtesy of The Library of Congress

Amidst today’s alarm at our state of disconnection with nature, there’s a tendency to assume that in the past everyone possessed a detailed knowledge about the natural world.  So it’s rather comforting to learn that in the early 19th century John Aikin (1747 -1822) decided that a tree identification book was needed to assist the many children (and adults) that didn’t know an oak tree from an ash.

The Woodland Companion, first published in 1802, begins with a frank assessment of the nation’s woeful lack of knowledge about trees:

‘The confined knowledge which young persons, and even those of advanced age, are usually found to possess of the noblest products of the vegetable creation, the trees which compose our woods and decorate our parks and pleasure-grounds, suggested to the writer that a brief description of them, in the form of a pocket-companion of the rural walk, might be acceptable.’

Like all the best pocket book guides, each tree in The Woodland Companion is accompanied by a detailed illustration of the leaves, flowers and fruits.  Aikin describes the size and shape of the trees and typical situations where they might be found.  He also takes time to inform us about the uses of the timber, revealing a world before mechanisation where wood was a material fundamental to every aspect of life, from architecture, transport, agriculture to the home.

After a career as a doctor, John Aikin (1747 -1822) took up writing in his retirement and was adept at producing material that a popular audience would enjoy.  He published many educational works about science, biography, poetry and the highly successful stories for children Evenings at Home which he wrote with his sister Anna Laetitia Barbauld.  The images used in The Woodland Companion were first commissioned by Alexander Hunter for his illustrated edition of John Evelyn’s Sylva (published in 1776 and re-printed several times).

I’ve included some of these fragile foldouts below with some details from Aikin about the trees and their uses.  There’s a link to the text at The Library of Congress at the very end of the post.

‘In our days, beech is a common material of the turner and cabinet maker; the former using it for his larger ware; and the latter, for common chairs and other articles of furniture.  It is, indeed, almost the only English wood employed by the London cabinet-makers.  Its lightness causes it to be chosen for the handles of tools; and it is split into thin scales for band-boxes, sword scabards, and the like.  The dried leaves of the beech make a very good stuffing for mattresses.’

The chesnut:  ‘Among the mast-bearing trees this may be reckoned the most valuable, since its nuts, by their sweet and farinaceous quality, are rendered good food for man, as well as for other animals.  The chesnuts cultivated for their fruit are usually grafted ones, called by the French marronier;  and in many parts of the south of Europe they afford great part of the sustenance of the poor, who make bread of their flour.  In this country the fruit of the chesnut is small, and seldom comes to maturity; it is therefore left to the hogs and squirrels.’

‘The wood of the elm is hard and tough, and useful for a variety of purposes.  It is particularly serviceable for occasions which require its being kept constantly wet; as in the keels and planking beneath the water-line of ships, mill-wheels and water-works, and especially for water-pipes, the great demand for which is the cause of its frequency about London, and of the practice of training it without branches to a tall straight trunk, which may admit of boring in long pieces.  It is likewise used for axel-trees, naves, gate-posts and rails, floors, dressers, blocks &c. and it is very fit for the carved and ornamental works belonging to architecture.’

The ash ‘may be peculiarly termed the husbandman’s tree; for it is one of the principal materials in making ploughs, harrows, waggons, carts and various other implements for rustic use: hence a proportional number of ash-trees should be planted in every farm.’

The sycamore: ‘It is not uncommonly planted in streets, and before houses, on account of its shade.  It also has the property of being less injured by the neighbourhood of the sea, and the dashing of the salt spray, than almost any other tree; and hence is often set in rope-walks in maritime towns.  It comes early into flower, and usually bears a vast profusion of pendent light-green bunches or catkins, which make a handsome show.  The flowers smell strong of honey, and afford much pasture to bees.’

The lime: ‘No tree is so much employed for avenues, and for bordering streets and roads.  Some of the straight walks of ancient limes, which modern taste has hitherto spared, are beautiful specimens of the pointed arch made by the intersection of branches, which has supposed to be imitated in the Gothic architecture of cathedrals.’

The horse chesnut: ‘This tree, which is originally a native of the East, has not very long been naturalized in England.  Its introduction here has been solely owing to its beauty, in which, in the flowering season, it certainly excels every other tree of its bulk that bears our climate.’ 

The hornbeam:  ‘It thrives well on a cold stiff clay, on the sides of hills, bears lopping and transplanting, and is capable of resisting the wind.  It is, however, principally cultivated as a shrub and underwood, and is excellent for forming tall hedges or screens in nursery grounds or ornamental gardens.  The wood of hornbeam is very white, tough and strong.  It is used for yokes, handles for tools, and cogs for mill-wheels, and is much valued by the turner.’

‘Hazel charcoal is preferred to any other by painters and engravers, for the freedom with which it draws, and the readiness with which its marks can be rubbed out.  The nuts of the hazel are a generally agreeable fruit.  They abound in a mild oil, which may be extracted by expression, and is used by painters for mixing with their colours.’

Further reading:

The Woodland Companion

John Aikin (Wikipedia)

Alexander Hunter (Wikipedia)

 

A Revival of English Topiary

From The Book of Topiary (1904) Charles Henry Curtis and William Gibson (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

While visiting some Kent and East Sussex gardens recently, I was struck by the range of topiary we saw.  The yew peacocks at Great Dixter are well known, as are the birds, animals and accomplished geometric forms in yew and box at Charlotte and Donald Molesworth’s garden in Benenden, (which opens to the public for the National Gardens Scheme).  Our travels through villages revealed more topiarised trees and shrubs, often a feature in cottage front gardens.

There is something about topiary that associates pleasingly with cottages and other English vernacular buildings, seeming to complement their scale and sense of history.  The designer Arne Maynard frequently uses these forms as structural elements in his gardens, using the formality of the tightly clipped trees as a contrast to much looser plantings, like a meadow or perennials and roses.

These topiary forms of tiered pyramids, spirals and birds feel quintessentially English, but as with so many garden fashions their origins lie elsewhere – in this case, Boksoop in The Netherlands, according to The Book of Topiary (1904).  This book by Charles Henry Curtis and William Gibson provides a fascinating overview of the art in England from an Edwardian perspective.  Curtis handles the history and Gibson, in his capacity as head gardener at Levens Hall in Cumbria, where the topiary was planted in the 1690s (and remains largely unchanged today) explains about training and maintenance.

From its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries, Curtis argues, topiary in England fell out of favour as the influence of landscape gardening gathered pace, and Victorian gardeners like William Robinson advocated a more naturalistic approach to planting.  However, with the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century and its focus on medieval art and architecture, there was a revival of interest in topiary for domestic gardens.

Curtis mentions two nurseries, William Cutbush & Sons of Highgate, London and J. Cheal & Sons in Crawley, Sussex that in the early 1900s were supplying topiary specimens to the public and showing plants at RHS shows.  The aptly named Herbert J. Cutbush was a regular visitor to Holland, travelling there on most weekends, and it was here that he came across topiary specimens that interested him.  Curtis says:

‘He discovered that some of the best trained and the best furnished specimens of sculptured yew and box were to be found in the farmhouse gardens, in small, almost unknown villages, far from the usual routes of tourists and business-men, and this led to still further explorations.’

Over time, Cutbush got to know the Dutch topiary growers who were located in the Boskoop district, inland from The Hague and Rotterdam.  He persuaded them to sell him plants from their nurseries for import to England, but would also buy specimens from private gardens:

‘One big tree that for sixty years had been the chief ornament of a Dutch blacksmith’s garden was only purchased after a whole day spent in persuasion and the consumption of much Schiedam, and after the purchase was made another week was spent in lifting and packing and removing the tree to the London steamer.’

The trouble and expense of importing plants like this one suggests that the market in England was sufficient to make the effort worthwhile.  The topiary designs that Cutbush saw in Boksoop are described in detail by Curtis:

‘There is a great variety of form in the Dutch clipped trees, but spires surmounted with birds seem to be among the most common and are as easy to produce as most.  For these, and for the peacocks and the spiral or serpentine columns, yew is almost invariably used.’ 

‘Pyramids, mop-heads and blunt cones are among the commonest designs; they do not call for the exercise of much ingenuity, but when these pyramidal trees are cut into several regular and well graded tiers their cost increases considerably.’

Cutbush also reported examples of topiary furniture such as tables with turned legs and armchairs, churches and crosses as well as ‘verdant poultry’:

‘Sitting hens, geese and ducks are common designs, and to protect the verdant poultry one may obtain equally verdant dogs, with or without kennels’

The Dutch topiary shrubs were field grown and Cutbush says that box birds might be trained for 10 – 12 years before they were lifted for export – dogs would need a little longer at 12 – 14 years.  To make the eventual lifting easier, the roots of the shrubs were pruned after a year’s growth.  Curtis and Gibson’s book doesn’t feature any photographs from Holland or the Cutbush nurseries, but there are several photographs from Cheal’s nursery at Crawley, showing many of the topiary forms described.

Today, Boksoop remains a centre for topiary with several nurseries still exporting their shrubs.  And as I witnessed last week, the domestic themed topiary that so inspired Cutbush lives on abundantly in English gardens.

Shirley Hibberd reveals his admiration for the topiary peacock.

Levens Gardens General View.

Peacocks, tables, spirals and boats in yew and box at J. Cheal and Sons, Crawley.

Hens, ducks, peacocks, etc. in box and yew at J. Cheal and Sons, Crawley

Crosses and jugs in yew.

Topiary at Balmoral Cottage, the garden of Charlotte and Donald Molesworth, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Balmoral Cottage, Benenden, Kent

Stylised yew peacock at Great Dixter

Shaggy peacock, Great Dixter

A splendid euonymus swan and tiered bay in a front garden, Appledore

Further reading:

The Book of Topiary

European Boxwood and Topiary Society website

The Character of Trees

Weeping Willow at Pope’s Villa (Alexander Pope’s house at Twickenham)

An abundance of paintings and plans have familiarised us with the design of parks and public gardens in the Georgian period, but it’s more unusual to come across detailed studies of individual trees they contained.  The artist François Louis Thomas Francia (1772 – 1839) provides some striking close ups of these trees, many of them in London, in his instructional drawing book Progressive lessons tending to elucidate the character of trees, with the process of sketching, and painting them in water colours published in 1813.

Francia has chosen trees of great character for his sketches – large, mature specimens which bear witness to the damage time (and people) have wrought upon them.  He resists the temptation to repair their imperfections, instead embracing their leaning trunks and dead branches and making these an integral part of his composition.  Interestingly, the plane tree (Platanus x hispanica) which dominates central London streets and open spaces today is absent from Francia’s studies, which reveal mostly native tree species.

Backgrounds in his sketches capture the semi-rural mood of Chelsea and Green Park, now built up and completely changed.  A sketch in Hyde Park shows an elm’s enormous canopy sheltering cattle – a scene almost impossible to envisage in a space now dominated by crowds of people.  At Millbank a pollarded willow tree grows on the quiet shoreline, before the construction of the Embankment and present day network of streets.

What is Francia’s advice to students wishing to draw a tree?  The key to representing the character of each tree species accurately, he says, starts with the close observation of the different shapes of the leaves and growth patterns of leaf clusters and branches.  For this purpose he suggests gathering specimens of these, which are dried and used as reference at home or in the studio.  He recommends drawing individual leaves repeatedly until students can remember their shapes.

He further explains his process of observation using the elm tree as an example:

‘The leaves from their smallness, closeness and quantity, acquire, at a little distance, a rotundity in the appearance of the clusters; and from the length and pliability of the branches they incline every way; that is, pointedly upwards at the top of the tree; horizontally in the middle; and downwards towards the bottom, with a tendency to curl upwards again.’

François Louis Thomas Francia was a refugee from Calais, France who came to England as a child.  He was an accomplished landscape painter and for some time the secretary of the Associated Painters in Water Colours.  Francia returned to Calais in 1816 (in the same year he was refused membership of the Royal Academy) and remained there until his death in 1839.

As we move into early autumn most London trees are still carrying green leaves, although after another dry summer, they’ve lost the freshness of spring and some are already starting to change colour.  Francia’s original trees are now gone, but his sketches and observations are still valuable – as a historical record certainly – but also as inspiration to look more closely at the trees around us today and appreciate them more.

Links to various sources at the end of the page.

Studies of individual leaves, leaf clusters and branches.

Francia says, ‘It is not necessary to become a perfect Botanist to delineate a leaf or a tree; it is only requisite that there be a sufficient resemblance, or character, in every tree we paint, or draw, as to be known and named by the spectators;’

Examples of the colours used by Francia.  Opposite each tree sketch he details which colours were used.

Fairlop Oak in Haynault Forest

Francia says of the oak:  ‘.. it will be observed that the leaf arranges itself in five or six leaves to a cluster, has a constant tendency to project horizontally, and even upwards; so caused by its being attached to branches which, by the abruptness of outline, evidently shew great strength in the tree; very different from the pliability and buoyancy of the Ash.’

The Fairlop Oak was a famous and well documented tree and the Fairlop Fair was held beneath its branches in the 18th century.  More details on the Hainault Forest website:  www.hainaultforest.co.uk

Elm in Hyde Park

Chesnut in Chelsea Gardens

‘The Chesnut .. has a much larger and longer leaf than the Oak, from which it varies particularly in its indentures or edges, which are less circular; it hangs five, six or seven leaves in clusters, and by spreading wide from the trunk on all sides, produce more shade than most other trees;’

Beech in the New Forest

Francia’s notes on the beech tree:  ‘A beautiful forest tree, which from the smallness of its foliage scarcely shews its individuality.  Its leading characters are its sharp pointedness at top, and sweeping branches all the way down, elegantly striving to point upwards.’

Willow on Millbank (with Lambeth Palace on the opposite side of the Thames).

Poplar in Buckingham Gardens

Ash in the New Forest

‘The leaf of this most elegant tree is long, and by its arrangement on the branch appears to lose its length by the circular character given to its clusters.  It is the most playful and buoyant of all Trees, and for beauty of form and elegance of distribution in its branches, as well as character, we know of no tree surpassing the Ash.’

Sycamore in the Green Park

Further reading:

Progressive Lessons by Francois Louis Thomas Francia
(Made available by the Getty Research Institute via the Internet Archive)

Francois Louis Thomas Francia