‘of the PINE tribe, set out as standards, or in groups, or in the outer ranks of a plantation, the lower boughs are their best ornament. How rich is their effect at BERKLEY, ENVILLE, FISHERWICK.’
Mrs W from Nether Lamport, the celebrated punster, is noted for the vehemence of her attack at the church organ. She is said to play ‘For those in peril on the sea’ as though she wished all sailors to drown. Mrs W has expressed disappointment at the inconclusive pronouncement of my note no.180 on the kinds of plants that might have been called ‘fir’ in the 18th century. She proposes that a fir is any tree of the sorts that might be found by the Arctic circle, being so-called for their association with fur-trappers and she takes her text, as it were, from the Rev William Gilpin ‘In the vast pine-forests of North America; and in those, which hang beetling over the cliffs of the Baltic, the picturesque eye might probably see many a grand production of the fir kind, which is hitherto little known…’
I cannot hope to correct Mrs W, nor should I wish to, but in this note I shall draw attention to the types of pine that were favoured in 18th century English landscape, and leave you to judge whether they share a Polar provenance.
For all the authorities, not least the Rev. William Gilpin, the Stone (Pinus pinea) was the sine qua non of pines with its umbrella-form, featuring in so many of the paintings of Claude Lorrain. It was ‘the true picturesque pine’, evoking as it did ‘ideas of broken porticos, Ionic pillars, triumphal arches, fragments of old temples, and a variety of classic ruins.’
However in most of England it fails, rarely presenting ‘more than a puny, half-formed resemblance’ and the cluster pine or pineaster (Pinus pinaster) is to be preferred as more hardy. As Gilpin himself put it: ‘The most beautiful succedaneum of the stone-pine, which these climates afford, is the pinaster. The sweep of it’s stem is similar, it’s broken lateral branches likewise, and it’s clump-head. Both trees also are equally irregular in their growth: but the pinaster is perhaps more picturesque in the roughness of it’s dark-grey bark. On no trees have I seen broader, and better varied masses of light, and shade: but the closeness of the pinaster’s foliage makes it’s head sometimes too heavy.’
The Weymouth Pine (Pinus strobus) we may dismiss for the ‘regularity of it’s stem; and the meagreness of it’s foliage’, but this leaves us with the central question of the two most used pines, Scots, and Corsican (P. sylvestris and P. nigra). The Scots, with its orange bark and craggy habit, will serve to set out the argument.
In addition to its timber value, Scots was valued for turpentine and tar products, it had, for those so inclined, an emblematic value as means of showing sympathy with the Jacobites, but the poet William Mason was a hater: ‘I find nothing that much offends me, save your Panegyric on Scotch firs, which as it brings to remembrance the tiresome walk which you made me once take to admire a group of those swine of the vegetable race, I cannot bear with Patience’ – and here he is again, breaking into verse:
‘Yet here the spoiler rests not; see him rise
Warm from his devastation, to improve,
For so he calls it, yonder champain wide.
There on each bolder brow in shapes acute
His fence he scatters; there the Scottish fir
In murky file lifts his inglorious head,
And blots the fair horizon…’
His good friend and correspondent the Rev. William Gilpin, on the other hand, admired them, ‘The Scotch fir, in perfection, I think a very picturesque tree, tho we have little idea of it’s beauty. It is generally treated with great contempt. It is a hardy plant, and therefore put to every servile office’ adding that ‘It’s ramification too is irregular, and beautiful; and not unlike that of the stone pine; which it resembles also in the easy sweep of it’s stem; and likewise in the colour of the bark.’ The Great Commoner, William Pitt, was another admirer and planted a pair for Sanderson Miller as signal trees at Radway.
However Gilpin and Pitt must face the particular contempt shown that immortal gardenerist, Capability Brown, by Uvedale Price for mixing Scots with other trees: ‘This is precisely the effect of clumps: the beauty or grandeur of the surrounding parts only serve to make them more horribly conspicuous; and the dark tint of the Scotch fir, of which they are generally composed, as it separates them by colour, as well as by form, from every other object, adds the last finish.’ And again ‘There is another circumstance in his plantations, which deserves to be remarked: a favourite mixture of his was that of Beech and Scotch firs, in nearly equal proportion: but where unity and simplicity of character are given up, it should be for the sake of a variety that will harmonise: which two trees, so equal in size and quantity, and so contrasted in form and colour, can never do.’- Price might have been thinking of the planting that still survives around the Shell House in Hatfield Forest, but it was his use of broad-leaves to link Lord Petre’s Scots Pine clumps at Worksop into a single plantation that was most contentious for Mason and Gilpin: the one damnatory ‘so discordant an effect no Plantation surely did ever produce. This I do not say to convince you, because I know you will not be convinced, I say it merely to assert my own opinion, that Scotch firs accord with no other Tree in the creation’; the other more reasoned in reply ‘that Ld Peter’s woods, (of wh I have heard, tho I never saw ym) shd be disgusting I can readily believe: but it is not because Scotch-firs & deciduous trees are mixed: but because they are mixed in patches, instead of masses…’
Then come those like William Marshall, who saw this mixing as a blemish but sought to excuse Brown: ‘perhaps, the most objectionable part of the operations, at Fisherwick, is that of encumbering the park with Firs. It may not, however, be too late to set about correcting the error. The Scotch Fir, in genial situations, is not of long duration; soon acquires its highest state of profitableness; and, it might be right, now, to form masses of deciduous trees, various in extent and outline, in the interspaces of the present clumps, which may be gradually removed, as they come ripe, and as the deciduous trees may rise into sufficient importance, to appear alone.’
But Marshall’s admission of Scots as a nurse tree was itself mercilessly condemned by Mason
‘Lur’d by their hasty shoots …
‘Planters there are who choose the race of pine
‘For this great end, erroneous …’
Now Mrs W, I am prepared to be conclusive if I must, and I would say that the atmosphere around the Shell House at Hatfield Forest is created by the mixture of beech and pine. The trees contrast and set each other off, as Uvedale Price ajudged. They induce the character of fairy-tale strangeness that characterizes the scene, so clearly distinct from the rest of the forest. The Shell House surrounded by the hornbeam pollards of the forest, would look merely odd and out of place. Now it is its own episode, it induces transumption, or the being in two places at the same time. As to whether one of those places lies north of the Arctic circle, I will not determine.