Joseph George Strutt’s Sylva Britannica (1822/1830)
In Sylva Britannica, or Portraits of Forest Trees, Joseph George Strutt (1784–1867) pictures fifty special British trees in etchings and words. Beneath gnarled oaks and chestnuts deer wander, horses mosey, and goats snooze. A pig nuzzles a root, a peacock perches on a branch, a cat ponders a picnic basket. Two travellers look up in quiet awe, a young lad fools with his dog, a reclining shepherd admires his flock. This is the country life glorified and simplified. If the characters could speak one would probably be quoting Duke Senior in As You Like It: “And this our life, exempt from public haunt, / finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
Strutt chooses tree species long associated with Britain — oaks, elms, yews, ash — as well as a few exotic recent arrivals like cedar and oriental plane. His descriptions owe a debt to John Evelyn, author of the first thorough study of British trees, Sylva (1664), which mixed classical mythology, rhapsodic praise, and practical forestry advice — all in an effort to encourage tree planting. Strutt is more focused on the poetic side of things but nonetheless shares Evelyn’s patriotism and conception of the social value of trees:
An insulated tree… seems the common property of all who raise their humble tenements within sight of its branches, and is one of the delightful ornaments of nature that the poorest cottager may enjoy and be proud of, as he sees the stranger stop to gaze at it. Perhaps there is no country in the world where an admiration of fine trees is so genuinely felt, or so generally diffused, through all ranks, as in England.
A compact, cheaper edition of Strutt’s book was published in 1830, presumably to diffuse the tree love further through the ranks — a scan of which you can browse above. Below we’ve featured a selection of etchings from the original 1822 folio (vastly superior to the reproductions in the 1830 edition) with relevant extracts from the accompanying prose.
The extremity of its boughs includes a line of one hundred and eighteen feet… When it is in the full pride of its foliage, it strikes the spectator with sensations similar to those inspired by the magnificent Banyan trees of the East… It affords a… singular and striking [spectacle] in the invigorating sharpness of an autumnal morning, when its thousand boughs, and every pendent twig, are gemmed with crystals, reflecting the rays which no longer scorch, and dazzle only to please…
Unpruned, unpollarded, throwing its broad arms around in all the freedom and majesty of its nature. It is supposed to have received its name from the accommodation it is so well calculated to afford in its ample canopy, “star-proof,” and its moss-grown roots, to the weary mendicants who may in former times have been tempted to seek the shade of its branches for repose or shelter.
It is said by the inhabitants of the village, that seventy persons at one time got within the hollow of the trunk; but, on inquiry, I found many of these were children; and, as the tree is hollow throughout to the top, I suppose they sat on each other's shoulders: yet, without exaggeration, I believe the hollow capable of containing forty men.
The whole estate, from the very nature of its situation, forming part of the borders between England and Wales, is fraught with historical associations, which extend themselves, with pleasing interest, to this ancient “monarch of the wood,” among whose boughs the war-cry has often reverberated in former ages...
The trunk is quite hollow, and altogether its age appears to warrant the idea that it may have witnessed in its infancy those rites and sacrifices of our Saxon ancestors which were held in these shadowy recesses, at once to increase their solemnity, and to shield them from the profane eyes of vulgar observers.
Gog and Magog appear in the Old Testament and in Islamic manuscripts either as individuals, tribes, or lands. In the Book of Revelation they are tribes. Early Christian writers turned them into apocalyptic hordes, and throughout the medieval period they were variously identified as the Vikings, Huns, Khazars, Mongols, Turanians, and other nomads. Oddly enough, another pair of oaks with the same names, but not featured in Srutt’s book, still stands at Glastonbury in Somerset — though Glastonbury Gog was damaged by fire in 2017.
Some years ago, this great ornament to Enfield was destined to be cut down by a gentleman who had purchased the spot on which it stood; but the contemplation of its loss excited so much regret and discontent among several of the most respectable inhabitants in the place, that he was obliged to relinquish the barbarous design, even after the trench was dug around it, the saw-pit prepared, and the axe almost lifted up for its destruction.
The Poplar, like other trees of the aquatic tribe, copiously exudes the moisture which it imbibes; insomuch that, in hot calm weather, its foliage, like that of the Willow, is additionally grateful from the drops of water that hang upon its leaves, with the refreshing coolness of a summer shower; and which, to a poetical imagination, like that of Ovid, affords a lively picture of the tears of Phaeton's sisters for his loss, completing the beauty of the story which relates their metamorphosis.
Probably the oldest tree now standing in England… Calculation takes us back to the beginning of the reign of Egbert, in the year 800... Since that epoch above a thousand years have rolled over its yet green head. How is it possible, bearing this reflexion in our minds, to look upon its gigantic trunk, and widely spreading arms, without feelings of reverence! How many, not merely generations of men, but whole nations, have been swept from the face of the earth, whilst, winter after winter, it has defied the howling blasts with its bare branches, and spring after spring put forth its leaves again... Nor is it solitary in its old age. Its progeny rises around it, and its venerable roots are nearly hidden by the lighter saplings and bushes that have sought the protection of its boughs, making it appear a grove in itself—a fit residence for some sylvan deity.
In general, the trees which in the end obtain the greatest size, are the slowest in growth; it may therefore reasonably be inferred that the age of our largest trees is often far beyond that assigned to them by obscure tradition or vague conjecture; and it is not improbable that the “Four Sisters” may have attained their tenth century.
The Fir... perhaps no where attains such perfection as… in those situations in the Highlands where it is most exposed to a northern aspect: for in proportion to the tardiness of its vegetation, in consequence of the little influence of the sun upon it for months together, it completes by slow and sure degrees the health and strength of its timber far beyond that which is nurtured to prematurity of stature in richer soils and warmer situations. This remark may be applied to all other timber trees as well as to the Fir.
The philosophical conversations of Socrates are represented as passing under [the Plane tree's] shade.. The Romans thought their most magnificent villas imperfect unless they were sheltered by the lofty and wide-spreading Plane; and the Turks, who treat it with extraordinary reverence, plant it near their dwellings, under the idea that it sheds a salutary influence over the noxious vapours by which the plague is generated... It would be well if we could revive so much of the veneration of the ancients for the Plane, as might induce us, like them, to plant it round our Schools and new Universities: our tiros in philosophy might… inhale under its branches some of the lofty contemplations of their predecessors, practise themselves in the same habits of simplicity, and finally arrive at the same height of intellectual and moral excellence.
...lifting its tranquil head over humble roofs, which it has sheltered from their foundation, and affording, in the projections and points around its base, an inexhaustible source of pleasure to the train of village children who cluster like bees around it; trying their infant strength and courage in climbing its mimic precipices, whilst their parents recall, in their pastimes, the feelings of their own childhood; when, like them, they disported under the same boughs.
The 16th-century manor house Chequers has been the country pile of British prime ministers since 1921. “The oldest special tree at Chequers is the still-sprouting stump of an Elm,” explains chilternsaonb.org, “reputed to have been planted by King Stephen (1097-1154). Unfortunately it succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s. Before it was felled, part of the main trunk was used to build a fine cabinet which can be seen in the dining room.”
These graceful trees are surrounded by objects of the most interesting nature, their branches almost touch the venerable remains of the Abbey of Dunkeld, whilst the bleak and barren hill which was once Birnham wood rises behind in the distance, and fills the imagination of the spectator... with thoughts of Macbeth, and Dunsinane…
It was planted about the year 1596... It is at the present period in full vigour and beauty, combining airy grace in the lightness of its foliage and the playful ramifications of its smaller branches, with solidity and strength in its silvery stem and principal arms. Delightful indeed is it to contemplate the variety and surpassing beauty of many of these 'houses not built with hands,' proclaiming to the viewless winds, the eyes of heaven, and the heart of man, the wisdom and the love of the Eternal Architect, whose fiat calls them into existence, and whose benevolence wills them to live for ages.
These venerable Yew Trees stand on a small eminence... overlooking the ruins of Fountains’ Abbey, which celebrated monastery was founded about the end of the year 1132... Under these [seven yew] trees, we are told by tradition, the Monks resided till they built the monastery; which seems to be very probable, if we consider how little a Yew Tree increases in a year, and to what a bulk these are grown. And as the hill side was covered with wood, which is now almost all cut down... it seems as if they were left standing to perpetuate the memory of the Monks’ habitation there during the first winter of their residence.
Tradition says that Henry VIII occasionally met Anne Boleyn under the lugubrious shade of its spreading branches… it afforded but too appropriate an emblem of the result of that arbitrary and ungovernable passion, which, overlooking every obstacle in its progress, was destined finally to hurry its victim to an untimely grave.
Pennant describes it as measuring fifty-six feet and a half. The same elegant tourist also speaks of it as having formerly been united to the height of three feet… It is now however decayed to the ground, and completely divided into two distinct stems, between which the funeral processions were formerly accustomed to pass.
June 10, 2021
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