One tree, Three years, Fifty paintings
True artists are dedicated souls. Nothing will come in the way of an artist and his subject matter. The compulsion to create overwhelms everything. Student and teacher alike, we all are single-minded in our quest. Art is life, or so we like to think.
But Stephen Taylor, former Head of Painting at the Open College of the Arts is indeed one such artist. Every day for the past 3 years Stephen has dedicated himself to painting a single Oak tree in the countryside outside of Colchester. Although ‘Constable Country’ is nearby, Stephen was concerned to paint a landscape that was contemporary and relevant to the present time and to investigate the changes of weather, time, atmosphere and the seasons. The agriculture is industrial. Fields of winter barley and oil seed rape define the fields and large-scale agricultural machinery dominate the landscape. The picturesque may be accommodated in other counties but this is agricultural Essex on an intensive scale.
The Oak tree is symbolic of this country. In 1651 King Charles II hid in one whilst evading parliamentary forces after the Battle of Worcester. The proliferation of public houses known as the ‘Royal Oak’ is a result. We know that ‘hearts of oak’ built the ships that sunk the Armada and ‘mighty oak trees from tiny acorns grow’. We like to think of these strong sentinels of the countryside as somehow defining the nation.
Stephen’s Oak Tree is one of many standing by the edge of a field where it has stood for the past 250 years. In all weathers and at different times of day and night he would set up his easel to record its changes of mood. In winter with bare branches, the ground is covered in snow or frost. In high summers the swallows fly above the corn, the tree is stately in its full summer regalia.
Although these may be romantic descriptions and traditional landscape painting does have a tendency in that direction, there are also those painters that have an interest in scientific enquiry. We are told that Constable in his youth learned to read the clouds because his task was to observe the weather so that he could change the sails on his father’s mill. Stephen in his turn has ventured up in a glider to investigate the patterns and configurations that help to give a sense of reality to his paintings of clouds. His knowledge of how to depict a field of corn or the leaves on an oak tree in paint, line, colour and tone, means he constructs a painting that is true to its nature.
Contemporary painting we are repeatedly told is dead and contemporary landscape painting if it exists at all is an anachronism. As a genre it seems not be promoted by our leading galleries and in our art schools the skills are no longer taught. How many landscape painters are employed in our university sector? How long will it be before the last landscape painting is spotted at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition, destined to go the same way as the humble portrait painting?
In the fields of Essex, in all weathers Stephen Taylor ignores the vagaries of fashion and continues his investigations of the contemporary landscape. He is not without friends. Alain de Botton in his book the ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’ has written ‘when he is at his easel …. his peers are no longer just his drinking companions from the local pub and he himself is not merely the son of a postman and a shop assistant; he is the confidant and heir of Titian.’
Across America, all with an interest in these matters are reading this book. It has been recommended by none other than Oprah Winfrey in her influential book club list as ‘Book of the Week’.
In concentrating our attention onto this tree and in introducing us to the transformative process of painting, Stephen Taylor has made us more aware of the passage of time and the seasons and our lives have become more meaningful and richer as a result.
Oak : One tree, Three years, Fifty paintings
Publisher –Princeton Architectural Press