Catalogue entry

T03540 An English Oak Tree 1981

Oil on canvas 78 3/4 × 59 (2000 × 1500)
Inscribed ‘McK’ b.r. and ‘Stephen McKenna/1981/OIL ON OIL’ on reverse
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Exh: Stephen McKenna, Patrick Verelst, Antwerp, February–March 1982 (no catalogue); documenta 7, Kassel, June–September 1982 (works not numbered, repr. in col. as ‘Oak Tree in Dulwich Park’ in Vol II of catalogue, p.223); Stephen McKenna, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, September–November 1983 (50); The Hard-Won Image, Tate Gallery, July–September 1984 (97); Stephen McKenna, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, October–November 1984 (50)

This image was developed from drawings made from nature, in 1981, of a particular oak tree in Dulwich Park, south London. In addition to many rough sketches, McKenna made two large drawings on the spot, from which he worked directly when painting ‘An English Oak Tree’ in the studio. He owns one of these; the other (private collection) is repr. Stephen McKenna, On Landscape, Berlin, 1984, p.33. In Dulwich Park McKenna first worked from a large oak tree but then decided to work instead from one - the basic source for the Tate's picture - which, though smaller, seemed to him to have more of the essential characteristics of an oak. However he did not alter the intention he had already conceived that his eventual painting should represent a large oak. Thus in view of the relatively small size of the second and final tree from which he worked the painted image departs in some degree from its observed source. McKenna's aim was to produce a generalised image both of the whole tree and its setting and of the detailed descriptions of foliage and branches. To this end he also made many detailed drawings of oak leaves and individual branches, working from nature in this respect both outdoors and in the studio. Two resulting paintings of oak leaves and branches are ‘Oak Leaves’ 1982 (oil on canvas 800 × 1000mm, private collection, Berlin; repr. in col. in catalogue of exhibition Stephen McKenna, Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels, April–May 1983 (7)) and ‘Oak Leaves and Apples’ 1982 (oil on three canvases, repr. in col. in catalogue of exhibition Stephen McKenna, Institute of Contemporary Arts, October–November 1985, pp.16–18). Around three sides of this central canvas is painted a garland of oak leaves, in reference to the fact that the place-name Derry means ‘Hill of Oaks’.

In painting ‘An English Oak Tree’ McKenna was very much aware of the importance of the oak tree both as an English national symbol and as having a long history of deep-seated religious significance in certain cultures. It was, for example, sacred both for the Druids and for the ancient Greeks. While many primitive societies imposed penalties for cutting down trees in general, those for felling oaks were particularly severe.

The moment at which McKenna determined to paint ‘An English Oak’ was when he saw in the Castle Museum, Norwich a painting by Crome of a large oak tree. Seeing the Crome recalled for McKenna his response to Courbet's ‘The Oak at Flagey, known as “The Oak of Vercingétorix”’ 1864 (oil on canvas 890 × 1100mm, Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, Philadelphia) when he saw it in the Courbet retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris, October 1977-January 1978. This work is reproduced in the catalogue of the same exhibition, Gustave Courbet, Royal Academy of Arts, January–March 1978 (73). The Courbet excited McKenna on account of its content. Although it was relatively small it had a monumental quality; its grandeur of scale inspired him in principle to paint a single oak very large. The importance for him of subsequently seeing the Crome was that it showed him that the kind of painting he had in mind was a technical and visual possibility. The Tate Gallery owns a large Crome of a single tree, ‘The Poringland Oak’ c.1818–20 (oil on canvas 1251 × 1003mm), which McKenna did not know at the time.

‘An English Oak Tree’ is the pendant to ‘L'Hêtre au Bois de la Cambre’ 1981, which is the same size and is reproduced in colour in Artforum, XXIV, October 1985, p.114 (where reversed in reproduction and mistakenly stated to belong to the Tate Gallery) and also (the right way round) in the catalogues of McKenna's exhibitions at Brussels, Oxford and Eindhoven cited above. This represents a single oak tree which McKenna observed in a large park in Brussels. Two large drawings for it, made from nature, are reproduced in Stephen McKenna, On Landscape, (op.cit.), p.32, opposite one (already cited) for the Tate's painting. In recent years McKenna has been dividing his time principally between two homes, in London and Brussels. The beech tree painting was painted entirely in Brussels and the Tate's painting almost entirely in London (though finished in Brussels). McKenna cannot recall which work he began first, but he worked on them alternately as he moved between the two cities. The conspicuously exposed roots of the beech tree were as observed. Along with a number of other beeches in the Bois de la Cambre with similarly exposed roots it has since been felled, as it had become dangerous. The contrast between the topographically specific title of the beech tree painting and the generalised one of the Tate's is owing to the fact that in Belgium the beech plays no role in national consciousness comparable to that of the oak in England.

In painting the Tate's picture McKenna was very conscious also of Caspar David Friedrich's painting ‘Oak Tree in the Snow’ c. 1828–30 (oil on canvas 440 × 345mm, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne; repr. catalogue of exhibition Caspar David Friedrich, Tate Gallery, September–October 1972 (93)). However, he wanted to avoid painting the oak tree as a romantic symbol (as Friedrich had done) and also to avoid the slight sense he found in the Friedrich of immateriality, in part derived from Friedrich's metaphysical purpose. Both in the Tate's painting and in its pendant, McKenna painted the tree before painting its background. In each case the landscape background (which is imaginary) was essential in order to counter the tendency towards the metaphysical and immaterial, which McKenna considers the beech tree painting does not quite avoid. McKenna's article ‘Caspar David Friedrich’ in Studio International, CLXXXIV, September 1972, pp.69–72, reproduces in colour and discusses another painting of a single oak, ‘The Solitary Tree’ 1823 (oil on canvas 550 × 710mm, Nationalgalerie, Berlin).

McKenna's ‘Rhododendrons’ 1982 (oil on canvas 1200 × 1600mm, repr. in colour in catalogues of Brussels, Oxford and Eindhoven exhibitions cited above) is related to ‘An English Oak Tree’ in being another work derived from nature in Dulwich Park and representing a whole single plant. In recent years McKenna has painted many pictures of city parks, his interest in which includes their carefully-controlled cultivation and the coming together in them of the natural and the manmade. Though derived from motifs observed in such parks, ‘An English Oak Tree’ and its pendant are not particularly related to this theme, but they led directly to McKenna's interest in the work of Constable and are thus direct antecedents of works such as ‘Richmond Park’ 1983 (oil on canvas 2000 × 2750mm, repr. in colour in catalogue of exhibition The Hard-Won Image, 1984, cited above, p.47).

This entry is based principally on an interview with the artist on 19 April 1986, and has been approved by him.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986