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

 

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