Ian Westacott - Trees on the Edge

April 2010


Ian Westacott
Trees on the Edge
Browns Gallery
Until 6 April

The depiction of trees in the history of art has a long tradition but careful studies of individual trees are much rarer. Dürer, Rembrandt and Van Gogh were sufficienlty skilled and interested to focus on trees as subject matter — but rarely exclusively so. Rembrandt's 'The Three Trees' from 1643, for example, shows the trees in considerable detail but only as part of a wider landscape including various human activities with the outskirts of a large town in the background. It is difficult, if not impossible, to discern the exact species which Rembrandt is depicting. Van Gogh's drawing 'Knotberken' (Pollarded Birches) from March 1884 shows the trees in great detail, with much arboricultural accuracy. But even here van Gogh's focus is on scene as a whole – on the right a shepherd guides his flock, while on the left of the pollarded stand, a women walks away, her back towards the viewer.

It is much rarer for an artist to focus exclusively on the tree as an object – and a subject – in itself. But this is the approach that the Dornoch-based printmaker Ian Westacott has taken. Using the recently published Heritage Trees of Scotland1 as a guide Westacott has travelled the length and breadth of the county in search of unusual trees. These trees have a history – often difficult – and are usually associated with humanity in some way or another.

Westacott says: "A tree shows its scars and knocks but keeps on living and enduring. I see in them accumulations of experience. As people we carry around injuries we had as children and the scars of our emotional lives; we keep scars locked away in our personalities and under our clothes, but with a tree it's all out there on view.” 

Westacott, therefore, clearly identifies with the trees he seeks to depict. Although his style is apparently mimetic, representational and 'objective' it contains aspects of expressive intent. The history and experience of these trees is therefore the history of both humanity and the artist. The trees' scarring, altering, wounding and cutting are felt - and not simply observed. 

'Balfron Punishment Oak', depicting the tree also known as the Clachan Oak for example, shows an ancient mutilated specimen of quercus robur, bound together by three iron bands and patched with planks. It appears more as a stump than as a tree and human comparison is easy and almost unavoidable: a wounded verteran with a long and perhaps ignominious history; someone who has stood the test of time and is still standing... The tree has supposed historical links with William Wallace and 'Rob Roy' MacGregor but was also used as a site of punishment where wrong-doers were chained and villified.

Westacott's technique involves working in situ and etching his small copper plate with sufficient detail for the composition to be finished in the studio. This is an approach he shares with friend, collaborater and fellow artist, Frances Walker. This painstaking technique, by necessity, takes hours of careful and patient crafting – often in winter – as Westacott prefers the stark outline of bare braches to summer foliage.

As an artist, one would expect Westacott to be sensitive to his surroundings in terms of aethetics and nature. But it is clear that this sensitivity – and joy – is more akin to reverence for the sheer evolutionary elegence of the tree as dominant life-form on our planet. While studying the diverse forms of these amazing organisms, and celebrating humanity's relationship with them he also, one suspects, despairs at the increasing distance between many people and the natural world. Indeed, this exhibition can be seen as a form of plea which urges the viewer to seek out what Westacott so obviously cherishes.