Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Tree of Life by Godfrey Blount

A comment on my last post got me thinking about the “swallows and rose tree” below.  What is the panel supposed to mean?  What is that tree?  Should it have a name more inspiring than the Victoria and Albert Museum's name of 'hanging'?  So I have decided to rename it!  The tree is a recurring symbol for Blount's work.

Tree of Life by Godfrey Blount, 1896
Victoria and Albert Museum
I had thought that the tree was a tree…but upon closer inspection, the thorns going up the trunk would suggest that this is a ‘rose tree’.  However rose trees do not really have thorny trunks, or multi-coloured rose flowers (at least not in 1896!).  Reading through some of Blount’s books, he advocates designing fantasy trees, and I believe that is what he was doing here:
“If you want to introduce more than one sort of leaf into your spiral, there is no objection to your doing so, so long as your stalks and leaves are not too much like real stalks and real leaves.  We should certainly be shocked if we found figs and thistles growing on the same bough, because we know they grow on different plants.  If we do not want the gardener to criticise our design we must plant trees that never grew in his garden; then perhaps he may learn to admire even if he cannot understand
Sursum Corda ("Lift up your hearts") by Godfrey Blount
from The Studio, vol 29

"…The liberty we may take with… whether we may put a thing in a position or attitude it cannot maintain in Nature, depends on its relative importance to the whole design, and the use that design is to be put to.  It would be absurd to plant an image of the Tree of Life upside down in the centre of a design, but we may allow some eccentricity of shape and attitude in the more conventional border round it; and so long as the freaks of our fancy remain subordinate to the whole scheme of decoration, we must not criticise them too scientifically."

In all three examples of peasant tapestries depicting trees, the roots of the trees are shown differently.  In the V&A's hanging, the roots are curved underneath the tree (as in the illustration of the vase from Arbor Vitae below), in Sursum Corda (above) the roots are angels wings, and in the tapestries on the Blount bed (below) they are splayed out.  Blount continues by saying "…The realist is more attracted to Nature’s results than to her means, to the flower more than the leaf or bud, to the satisfaction of desire more than to the anticipation of it…What a poor sort of compromise with Nature your modern artist thinks of such trees, with their stiff stem, their pair of stubborn branches, and half a dozen leaves!  …How could we find a better natural illustration of that characteristic of traditional Art on which I like to lay so much stress: that infinity within finite limits: that tree of ancient pedigree whose every branch is rooted in the centre of the universe, and carries a host of leaves and the seeds of a thousand generations!” 
Detail of Godfrey Blount bed hanging
from Artist, vol XX, 1897

So here Blount appears to be advocating a mixture of art and nature to produce a more inspiring tree: "All undertakings which are firmly rooted in deep soils of security and truth become trees of life, pillars of strength and support, an issue in wide-spreading shelter of praise and aspiration.  The tree, with its ubiquitous illustration of these thoughts, has naturally become their lasting symbol…Look at a forest tree, and see the single sweep of outline that gathers all it contains in one huge oval, and says to the aspiring and final twig on every branch, “Thus far, and no farther.”  If you will prune your arabesques in the same gardener-like way, you will feel how necessary this severity is to bring out the force and contrast of their essentially meandering character.

from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899

"...The tree is a source of myth and decoration that has been universally accepted, from its frequency and obvious analogy, not only to our life, but to every religion and institution in which mankind has been interested
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899

"...We can never divorce the history and practice of Art from the idea of the growth of some living thing, and it is the tree which has been throughout this essay a type, in my mind, of the way in which Art has grown and flourished, and of the way also in which every one of us may cultivate the Art instincts in himself.  Whether it is regarded then, as the symbol of our own or of other life and work, or as a type of that inner existence which is just as real to us, our faiths and our thoughts, the tree, if it is a stout one, is rooted in the soil of solid facts, that is to say, material necessities, popular demands, or, if you will have it so, the will of God or the inevitableness of fate.  Soon its fibres are welded together in co-operative unity to lift its hope out of the dark and mysterious chambers of its birth, to cope with its storm and rain and sunshine.
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899
Illustrating that an inverted tree is like a vase

"...If we turn the tree...upside down, we shall obtain a simple form of bottle or vase which is itself the root of a vast family of traditionally decorative ideas, whose chief significance is seen when flowers or a plant grow out of it.  It is then evidently the earth obedient to God’s command on the third day, bringing forth her verdant offspring

"...On the main facts of life we cannot quarrel, because we must always submit to them.  We must take this as the first meaning of the tree symbol.
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899

“...its central head and laterally uplifted arms suggest the figure most associated in our minds with the Christian religion – the attitude of crucifixation, or of supplication and submission to the All-Father’s will…their accidental imitation or suggestion of other tricks and actions which in more organic life are full of significance and meaning.”

The rose or creeper climbing up the tree evokes the serpent in the garden of Eden.  In other trees designed by Blount, the climber is ivy or snake-like as in the illustration above.  Blount says “the ivy, twisting round the trunk, is the serpent, genius of the soil, earth spirit, symbol of cunning craft, dividing spiral, promising us wisdom, rewarding us with dust; tempting us to taste, to be as gods, and to suffer with them."
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899

At the conclusion of Arbor Vitae Blount states:  “We cannot any longer separate religion from Art.  What we believe, what we love, what, even, we should like to believe and love, we must put into some sort of shape, make some sort of creed or confession of, however loosely worded.  And if we have nothing at first to say, let us waste no time in vain regret, but try and throw ourselves open to every natural influence we can – bird and beast and creeping thing, wind and rain and sun, mountain, river and forest, and crown ourselves laureates to Nature, Poets of the Poor.  We cannot paint till we can feel ; when we can feel, we can paint or sing with ease.”
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899
Dove formation similar to the V&A's hanging

Following in this religious vein, in Science of Symbols (Blount, Godfrey, Arthur Fifield, 1905) Blount states "It is useless to kick against the pricks, against the overwhelming evidence of God.  If Nature reminds us of God, then indeed is Nature the symbol of God.  The Tree, the Stone, the Animal, the roughly hewn idol, image, or totem

"..So far from closing our eyes to facts because all facts are wicked, we must open our enlarged eyes to them because they have become symbols.  Christ has brought about a new dispensation by bringing life into the world an d making what was dead before, alive.  Now, sun and air and cloud and tree and stone and stream cry, “Hosannah to the Highest.  Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

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