A visual story of my spring research trip to the old oaks of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire…
I grew up in nearby Matlock and know the estate quite well, but only recently discovered the former hunting park there with its large collection of ancient trees. This is probably one of the biggest, which I decided to try to tackle on my first day there.
I stayed in a cottage on the estate with Dr Moir who was having a well earned holiday while I worked. I wanted to be able to walk to the trees, not just for the time saving aspect but to retain a connection to the place that’s vital for a trip like this – immersing myself in the environment is important for the resulting work. I call it my ‘drawing bubble’ and try to stay in it.
On my first day there I’d arranged to tour the trees with Carl Cornish and Louise Hackett, who are both involved in conservation projects at Sherwood Forest. Carl interviewed me about my work for a piece in the Ancient Tree Forum Newsletter and we had an enlightening morning sharing our knowledge and appreciation for these irreplacable old oaks.
Monday evening saw me teaching my ‘Permission to Draw’ class from the dining room, with some improvised set up and a distinguished onlooker behind me. The class on mark-making was a really good warm-up for the week – I find teaching others so rewarding and a great way of reminding myself of the pure pleasure of drawing.
Of course I brought a ridiculous amount of art materials and surfaces with me, just in case I might need them. What I actually used was mostly this compact drawing kit and concertina sketchbooks I’d prepared in my studio, as the weather was too windy and showery for the large papers I’d hoped to draw on.
When I stayed here last year I identified a few of the hundreds of trees which I wanted to go back to draw. A collection of so many wonderful trees can feel overwhelming and I’ve learned to give myself some constraints in order to get down to work.
In response to the enormity and complexity of these trees, I decided to zoom in on their details, particularly the features which make ancient trees so valuable ecologically – decay, hollowing, standing dead wood, providing homes for tiny lives we rarely see.
Getting lost in these details resulted in some quite abstract drawings, which I felt were filling up my visual memory in preparation for later studio work.
When the rain really came down it was nice to be able to retreat to the cosy cottage, lay out my drawings and develop some ideas in my sketchbook instead.
I also sketched some of the 18th C artworks in the cottage, many from the Chatsworth collection, finding parallels between tree forms and the drapery of these long gone ladies.
My last evening was spent reviewing the week’s work and making notes on how to take this research forward, along with enjoying a wee beer of course.
This collection and the ideas it has generated will be heading back to Derbyshire with me in May, for my residency at The Old Lock Up Gallery in Cromford.
Have a look at the Chatsworth oaks I found on last year’s trip here.