With my companions at the Tatler’s Waste-Bin, Captain Ken, the noted bicyclist, amongst them, we have on occasion devoted our evening’s lucubration to the trees that grow readily in the kingdom. Last night came the turn of the greatest of them all, and the tree most planted by our hero, Capability Brown.
Here among the brassy fanfares of praise, one can pick out the more penetrating solo-ists of the orchestra:
William Harrison: ‘oak hath always the pre-eminence, as most meet for building and the navy, whereunto it is reserved. This tree bringeth forth also a profitable kind of mast, whereby such as dwell near unto the aforesaid places do cherish and bring up innumerable herds of swine. In time of plenty of this mast our red and fallow deer will not let to participate thereof with our hogs, more than our neat; yea, our common poultry also, if they may come unto them.’
Thomas Gisborne: ‘Chief of the glade, the oak is foliage stain’d
With tender olive and pale brown protrudes,
Proud of a shelter’d monarch, proud to lend
Chaplet still to British loyalty.’
William Shenstone ‘Oaks are in all respects the perfect image of the manly character: in former times I should have said, and in present times I think I am authorised to say, the British one.’
My good friend Professor W, visiting us from the fen country, and unusually quiet up to that point, then speculated that parkland became valued for timber production as the practice of clipping and shredding trees went out of fashion. Indeed oak was not only loved for its beauty and as an emblem of British manhood, but was also valued above all other trees for the financial return to be had from it.
Yet for all those patriotic associations, it was generally the twisted sinuous shapes of the trees that had the greater commercial value. For while oak could be grown for straight timber (so Thomas Hamilton advised that ‘No Tree should be allowed to … put out Two stems’), it was more valued for ship-wood. In the complacent words of William Gilpin: ‘it is a happiness to the lovers of the picturesque, that this noble plant is as useful, as it is beautiful… It is not the erect, stately tree, that is always the most useful in ship-building; but more often the crooked one, forming short turns, and elbows, which the shipwrights commonlv call knee-timber, this too is generally the most picturesque. – Nor is it the strait, tall stem, whose fibres run in parallel lines, that is the most useful in bearing burdens: but that whose sinews are twisted, and spirally combined..’ Hence too the poetic quality of his description of oak branches as ‘continually twisting in various contortions … like the course of a river [they] sport and play in every possible direction; sometimes in long reaches, and sometimes in shorter elbows…’. For Gilpin it was unquestionably the most picturesque tree, deeply associated with the ‘ivyed walls’ of the ‘ruined tower, and Gothic arch’. It was the tree of the forest and the middle ages, and he commended its old age to us, through which ‘the oak acquires its greatest beauty; which often continues increasing even into decay’.
Inevitably then Philip Miller recommended oak trees as ‘very proper for a Wilderness in large gardens, or to plant in Clumps in parks’. In clumps indeed or as single trees, in avenues or plantations, it was admired wherever it was found. In addition to its use in construction and the value of the nut, its wood lasted longest in fencing. It was also the tree of continuity – so John Laurence, ‘according to the common observation… an Oak is one hundred years a growing, one hundred years at a stand, and another hundred in its decay’ – and hence of wealth – because a family that could afford to plant oak was able to plan ahead one or two generations. In some places oak makes up more or less the sole parkland tree, in the great majority it dominates at least one part of the landscape as well as the majority of Brown’s belts and plantations. For Brown it was generally less a tree of clumps, but he did use it for groves and he did transplant it even when 50 years or more in age. Its use in the further parts of the parkland encouraged a sense of continuity with the countryside beyond.
Having come this far in sympathy with his fellows, Mr Honey brought our meeting to a close in customary fashion, by stooping to the hearth to knock the dottle out of his pipe, and wishing us all, with his diffident stammer, ‘G-God’s g-goodnight’.