Oak, One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Paintings – Stephen Taylor

Oak, One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Paintings – Stephen Taylor

Book Review of Oak, One Tree, Three years, Fifty Paintings by Stephen Taylor

The act of painting the same thing many times over a period of three years compels a level of observation which few of us have experienced, perhaps a meditation on the nature of “tree”, leading to rare insights denied to those who merely pass by on their daily walk.  

In his book, Oak, One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Paintings, Stephen Taylor demonstrates the results of his determined art, resulting in a unique record of his time spent in a field in North Essex in various weathers and seasons.

We see the 250 years-old oak tree in every possible condition whether in sunshine, snow, summer, winter, morning, night-time, from a distance and in close detail.  From his stained fingers and messy palette we see leaves and twigs emerging, not unlike the way that the debris of winter gives way to green shoots.

Initially, the tree stood in a field of flowers, the pods a “lurid pale green” and the early paintings contrast this sickly, fleshy plant with the statuesque oak rising above it in powerful contrast.  A few months pass and we see the tree having partly shed its autumn leaves, its branchy skeleton now showing through the brown foliage.  

Stephen was by this time noticing that when he placed his tree portraits next to each other, “they appeared to be different trees”.  He found that as he looked at each iteration of the oak tree he observed a creation so different from the last that it was like looking at a different tree, his detailed observation stripping away preconceived ideas of “oak tree” and replacing them with a wholly new discovery each time he painted.

Each painting has a different title.  We see “Flints” when the new sown crop of winter wheat allows flints to be seen in the foreground field.  “Elm Sapling” shows little competing trees growing close to the familiar oak.  “Oak and Crows” shows a wintry scene with a branchy, twiggy tree with black crows flying over it.  

In “Oak after Snow” we see patches of snow adhering to the trunk and a white covering of snow over the muddy field (and what a mastery of sky Stephen demonstrates from perfectly executed graduated blue washes, to complex cloud formations which take as much painting as any area of land.  

He sometimes paints complex foregrounds with countless wheat stalks ready for harvest (tedious work surely?).  At other times the foreground is impressionistic, merely suggested by rough strokes of the brush.

Towards the end of the book we see a set of eight pictures a mere 100mm square, reproduced a little larger than full size.  These provide an effective counterpoint to the paintings of the majestic oak in its field.   

This “Semipermeable Membrane Series”, was inspired by cigarette cards from the 1930s that belonged to Stephen’s father.  Each one contains a fragment of the natural world relating to the oak tree – the winter litter at the base of the tree with decaying acorns, leaves and twigs, a spray of autumn leaves just before they fall from the tree, an oak seedling pushing through the earth in spring.

Towards the end of the book, the chapter “From Start to Finish” allows us to read about the techniques Stephen uses in painting his oak tree paintings. There is a photograph of his pochade box which hangs around his neck and contains paints and palette.

After describing the painting process, Stephen tells us how he conducts computer analysis on layers of colour (few artists these days can resist the fascination of analysing their work with Adobe Photoshop).  We then see photographs of an exhibition of his work at the Vertigo Gallery in Shoreditch (I at least realising for the first time the scale of the work – from the tiny miniatures to the larger canvases).

Alain de Botton wrote the foreword to the book (Stephen’s paintings had featured in his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work) and writes, with his ususal elegance, about the painting process and reminds us that when Jane Austen was a baby, the oak was already home to starlings.

Having read this book from cover to cover and studied these tree portraits with careful attention, my final thought is that this tree now deserves a name of its own.  “An oak tree in a field in Essex” is somehow inadequate to describe this complex life-form which has attracted such a level of in-depth attention from this fine artist.