The Wonders of Forestry 21.04.2012Features
Brave New Forest
In the UN International Year of Forests, and at a precarious time for Britain’s forestry future, Hampshire’s New Forest continues to provide an inspiration for artists and writers.
Text: Ian McKay | Images: Various
WHEN THE government announced
that it was planning to sell off some of Britain’s prime forestry land, it was on the cards that Middle-Englanders everywhere would get themselves in a bit of a lather. Nothing, it seemed, could raise the ire of the middle classes more than the idea that the core of Britain’s national identity – what some might term its heart of oak – was to be rent apart. Of course, much of the timber resources and land going under the hammer wasn’t the ancient broad-leaved woodlands of Olde England at all, but vast conifer plantations of alien and exotic species that originated as far afield as the western states of the USA. Nonetheless, it seemed that the government had hit the cultural nerve of the nation and disregarding the finer detail, battle lines were drawn.
From a cultural point of view, you only have to look to the writings of William Gilpin, godfather of the picturesque, to realise that tampering with the relationship between Britons and their woodland was a big mistake. While the 18th century landed gentry might have gone in for a bit of capability browning, Gilpin had strong views on what did and didn’t constitute a ‘natural vista’. Not for him a regimented grove of trees; Gilpin liked to mix it up a bit and, as he wrote in his now famous Remarks on Forest Scenery of 1791, in a natural forest ‘the trees are casually large or small, growing in clumps, or standing single, crowding upon the foreground, or receding from it, as the wild hand of nature hath scattered them’. Here was the recipe for the picturesque rural idyll.
Gilpin was not just an author, he was also a schoolmaster, artist, and for many years the vicar of the small village of Boldre from where he was responsible for putting the New Forest on the cultural map. With a complex history that stretched back beyond the Norman invasion of Britain to the ancient Saxon forest landscape of Ytene, this unkempt wilderness captured the imagination of the nation then, just as it does today. Little wonder that when, over 300 years later, the government announced its plans for a sell-off, the New Forest was viewed as Britain’s woodland scene in microcosm.
Gilpin was not alone in responding to the New Forest in terms of its artistic inspiration though. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, artists set up shop or holidayed there, sampling the pleasures of one of the last ancient forests of England. In the modern era, the New Forest was still a draw for artists, offering an escape from the pretensions of the metropolitan centres and modernist cliques. Such an artist was Sven Berlin, who rejected his place in the artistic community around St Ives, leaving in 1953 to live among the gypsies of the New Forest in a horse-drawn caravan. Berlin being born in 1911, the St Barbe Art Gallery on the southern edge of the Forest is this year celebrating his centenary with a retrospective.
Painter Kurt Jackson met Sven Berlin as a child when Berlin and his wife, Juanita, were living in the gypsy compound of Shave Green Wood. Jackson’s memories of Shave Green were to become the reason to return in 2005, when he came back to what is now a hauntingly silent place. About his memories of Shave Green, he says that even today he feels the presence of those who once lived there, and who were to be brutally evicted. ‘Today, Shave Green has reverted to just another part of the woodland Forest,’ he says, but at one time it was one of the largest compounds to house the Gypsy community. ‘Root around and you can still find traces of them; an old jam jar, or a single boot.’
For artist Sonia Shomalzadeh, who will show her work in the New Forest this winter, the Forest is a place that is viewed as part of the much wider timber processing industry. ‘I am considering the journey of a tree throughout its lifetime and beyond,’ she says. ‘These giants of nature have been felled and processed, the productions of this final journey scattered on our streets as flimsy, temporary items with seemingly little or no value once discarded.’ Her works, many of which are made of discarded cardboard boxes, return that material to a form reminiscent of the tree from which it was extracted; a poignant reminder of a long and not altogether healthy relationship between the Forestry Commission and the New Forest.
As recent critics have observed, the huge biodiversity of Gilpin’s New Forest is at risk from a conifer plantation monoculture that is extremely damaging according to the conservation charity the New Forest Association, and as the Hampshire Wildlife Trust has recently stated, their experience is that the Forestry Commission has not risen to the challenge of managing a public estate in a manner befitting the Forest. While Shomalzadeh’s work comments on the never ending cycle of life, that cycle can only be stretched so far. At no point in our history have our forests been so overstretched in terms of the demands we put upon them, for both industry and leisure. In recent years, while the New Forest has proved an inspiration for artists as diverse as photographer Adam Burton, painter Kurt Jackson, and sculptor Sonia Shomalzadeh, there will come a point when, in the words of TV naturalist Chris Packham, ‘these trees finally succumb to old age and there will be no trees in the New Forest at all, nor precious little in the way of its historically rich and varied wildlife either.’ In 2011, the International Year of Forests, that’s a sobering thought.
Ian McKay is an author based in Hampshire. His book A New Forest Reader was published by Hatchet Green earlier this year.