Graham Sutherland OM

Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 787 × 1079 mm
frame: 982 × 1260 × 92 mm
Purchased 1940

Display caption

This composition was based on a fallen tree on a grassy bank, with exposed roots. Sutherland isolated this ‘found object’ and abstracted its form so that it seems to emerge from the murky green surroundings. It resembles a monster, or even a distorted human figure. Critics have suggested that the organic form of the fallen tree is used here as a symbol of human cruelty and violence, reflecting the anxiety and political crisis of the Second World War.

Gallery label, April 2019

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Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods 1940


Oil on canvas 794 x 1070 (31 1/4 x 42 1/8)

Purchased from the artist through the Leicester Galleries, London (Clarke Fund) 1940

First Exhibition of Paintings by Walter Goetz; Recent Paintings by Graham Sutherland, Leicester Galleries, London, May 1940 (23)
Tate Gallery Wartime Acquisitions, National Gallery, London, April-May 1942 (135)
A Selection from the Tate Gallery’s Wartime Acquisitions, Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts tour, Royal Exchange, London, July-Aug. 1942, Cheltenham Art Gallery, Sept., Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Oct., Galleries of Birmingham Society of Arts, Nov.-Dec., Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Jan.-Feb. 1943, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, Feb-March, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, March-April, Manchester City Art Gallery, April-May, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, May-June, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, June, Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery, Kelvingrove, July, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, Aug. 1943 (96)
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, British Council tour, 1946-7, Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, Jan.-Feb. 1946 (108), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, March (108), Raadhushallen, Copenhagen, April-May (108), Musée de Jeu de Paume, Paris, June-July (108), Musée des beaux arts, Berne, Aug. (110), Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, Sept. (111), Narodni Galerie, Prague, Oct.-Nov. (111), Muzeum Narodne, Warsaw, Nov.-Dec. (111), Galleria d’arte moderna, Rome, Jan.-Feb. 1947 (111)
Continental Exhibition: Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery Exhibited Under the Auspices of the British Council, Tate Gallery, London, May-Sept.1947
Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, 1953 and tour, Seattle Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, Vancouver Art Gallery, Akron Art Institute, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Lowe Gallery, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Fa., Phillips Gallery, Washington D.C., Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Fa, Feb. 1954 (3, as ‘1939’)
Sutherland, Galleria civica d’arte moderna, Turin, Oct.-Nov. 1965 (17, repr. p.65)
Graham Sutherland, Kunsthalle, Basel, Feb.-March 1966 (20)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Sept.-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (54, repr. p.70)
Loan to Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, Sept. 1978-April 1979
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (75, repr. in col.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (75, repr. in col. p.93)
Graham Sutherland: The Early Years 1921-40, Goldsmiths’ Gallery, London, Oct.-Dec. 1986 (95, repr. in col. p.19)

Raymond Mortimer, ‘Notes on Shows’, New Statesman and Nation, vol.19, no.481, 11 May 1940, p.62
Eric Newton, ‘Graham Sutherland’, Sunday Times, 12 May 1940
Charles Doubleday, ‘Graham Sutherland by Edward Sackville-West’, Architectural Review, vol.96, no.511, July 1944, p.28
James Thrall Soby, Contemporary Painters, New York 1948, p.136
Robert Melville, Graham Sutherland, London 1950, [p.11]
Edward Sackville-West, Graham Sutherland, Harmondsworth 1943, p.13, pl.3 (col.), rev. ed., 1955, p.9, pl.5 (col.)
Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, p.22, pl.23c
Ronald Alley, ‘The Work of Graham Sutherland by Douglas Cooper’, Burlington Magazine, vol.104, no.710, May 1962, p.220
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.703
William Feaver, ‘Rogue Males’, London Magazine, vol.12, no.2, June-July 1972, p.126
David W. Boxer, ‘The Early Work of Francis Bacon’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 1975, pp.100-101, n.113
Dennis Farr, English Art 1870-1940, London 1978, p.283, pl. 105a
Roberto Tassi, Graham Sutherland: Complete Graphic Work, London 1978, p.24
Roberto Sanesi, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1979, pp.31, 34
Roberto Tassi, Sutherland: The Wartime Drawings, Milan 1979, trans. Julian Andrews, London 1980, p.12
John Hayes, The Art of Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1980, p.78, repr. p.78, no.39 (col.)
Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.13
Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London 1982, pp.91-2, 98, repr. between pp.96 and 97 (col.)
Rosalind Thuillier, Graham Sutherland: Inspirations, Guildford 1982, p.46, repr. p.30, pl.23 (col.)
John Spurling, ‘A Man Required to Fill a Place’, New Statesman and Nation, 28 May 1982, p.27
Richard Shone, ‘Sutherland at the Tate Gallery’, Burlington Magazine, vol.124, no.952, July 1982, p.462
David Lee, ‘Graham Sutherland: The Early Years, Goldsmiths’ Gallery’, Arts Review, vol.38, no.23, 21 Nov. 1986, p.638
Malcolm Yorke, The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists, London 1988, p.119
William Boyd, ‘Draughtsman’s Comeback’, Observer Magazine, 26 Sept. 1993, p.16

Hesketh Hubbard, A Hundred Years of British Painting, 1951-1951, London 1951, pl.124
The Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion to the National Collection of British and Modern Foreign Art, London 1979, p.110 (col.)
Simon Wilson, British Art: From Holbein to the Present Day, London 1979, p.158 (col.)
Peter Fuller, ‘Graham Sutherland: The Early Years 1921-40, Goldsmiths’ Gallery, London’, Burlington Magazine, vol.129, no.1006, Jan. 1987, p.44 (as Welsh Landscape with Roads, repr. in negative)
Giulio Carlo Argan, L’Arte moderna: Dall’Illuminismo ai movimenti contemporanei, Florence 1988, p.337, pl.543

Seen as one of his major works, Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods was one of several paintings of the period in which Sutherland invested natural ‘found-objects’ with anthropomorphic qualities. As such, with its fusion of landscape sources and abstract and surrealist vocabularies, it may be seen as epitomising a key aspect of the artist’s work.

This was one of a number of variations of the same composition which derived from an up-rooted tree close to the Milford Haven estuary in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales. It was preceded by a watercolour of the same name, dated 1939 and belonging to Sir Colin Anderson - one of Sutherland’s major patrons - which showed the same motif in a vertical format.[1] Two studies for this earlier piece have been published[2] and an inscription on the first - ‘8.5.39’ - provides a fairly accurate idea of when the work was first conceived. The composition of Anderson’s Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods was reworked to produce the more stylised, simpler oil painting Green Tree Form, 1940 (British Council).[3] The Tate’s horizontal version is the last of the series and, though in oil, it returned to the greater degree of detail and spatial complexity of the first version. When asked, the artist was unsure of its precise date: in 1953 he thought it had been made in 1939,[4] but changed that to 1940 because he was certain that it was the last painting worked on prior to his exhibition in May of that year and that it was still wet when it went to the framers at the end of January.[5]

This fact might explain the presence of an unfinished composition on the back of the canvas which Sutherland seems to have been reluctant to destroy. He retained all of the image despite Green Tree Form being considerably smaller and, as a result, there is a fold-over of canvas of about 35cm (13 3/4 in.) on the right hand side. The expedient reuse of the support may reflect the shortage of materials occasioned by the war. Though covering the whole canvas, the reverse image is clearly unfinished with shapes blocked in but with little definition or suggestion of volume. However, a serpent-like root form that dominates the composition associates it with the watercolour Blasted Tree, 1937 (whereabouts unknown),[6] for which there were several studies. The use of sand to provide texture might suggest a date c.1939, as that technique was used in Entrance to a Lane (Tate Gallery N06190) of that year and in Black Landscape, 1939-40 (Tate Gallery T03085). Other than some flaking where the canvas is folded around the stretcher this secondary image is in good condition. Beyond the similar use of organic forms, there is no obvious connection between this composition and Green Tree Form.

The source for Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods was a fallen tree lying across a grassy bank, its exposed roots being the highlighted knobbly forms on the left hand side. The paint is generally thin, except in the top right hand section in which different layers of green and black give the suggestion of a lane disappearing into the distance. The latter motif was a favourite of Sutherland’s and had appeared, most famously, in Entrance to a Lane, 1939. The composition of Green Tree Form appears to have been drawn in black oil, possibly over pencil, and those lines selectively repainted later; where the paint is thin characteristic squaring up is visible. The artist seems to have employed a technique akin to that used for watercolour: a green glaze was thinly applied to the ground over a wide area and other paint worked over the top of it. However, the area of the roots was left bare for thin applications of yellow and a more acidic green and the white that forms a focus for the composition is, in part, the exposed ground. The only impasto is in the grey area in the middle of the tree trunk, which was clearly one of the last passages to be painted as the pigment was applied around the black lines. These lines, which serve to define the volume of the tree, and others that delineate its woodland context were generally painted over the main paint layer. This establishment of a formal and figurative cohesion through the imposition of drawing in paint was typical of Sutherland’s practice.

Green Tree Form also epitomises the isolation of a single organic object which had been an important aspect of his painting from the beginning and had featured in his first exhibition with such works as Red Tree, 1936 (private collection).[7] The artist discussed his use of such objects as fallen trees and roots in terms of ‘paraphrase’ and successive commentators have followed him in seeing metamorphosis as the principle behind the forms. He said:

The objects which I paint do, in fact, exist in nature. But ... my particular preoccupation in landcape is bound up with a desire to divorce some of the objects which one sees from their context ... I feel compelled to make the object ‘once removed’ from nature, thereby giving it a heightened form of realism ... I remove the traces of superficial reality or optical reality and try to retain the essence of the original object ... The prototype in nature has got to be seen through the terms of art. A metamorphosis has got to take place ... it is necessary to project or paraphrase the object.[8]

By seeing in individual objects the reproduction in miniature of larger natural patterns - the forms of hills in sea-eroded rocks, for instance - Sutherland also echoed one of the basic tenets of Romanticism, encapsulated by Blake in the phrase ‘to see the world in a grain of sand’.[9] However, for Robert Melville, the ‘metamorphic’ aspect of Sutherland’s art linked it to the work of ‘Picasso, Miró, Masson, Klee, Moore ... and certain surrealists’ rather than to that of the ‘English romantic topographers’.[10]

Sutherland was more specific, acknowledging the importance to him of the display of Picasso’s Guernica and related works in London in 1938. ‘The drawings’, Sutherland said, ‘seemed to open up a philosophy and point to a way whereby - by a kind of paraphrase of appearances - things could be made to look more vital and real ... Only Picasso ... seemed to have the true idea of metamorphosis whereby things found a new form through feeling’.[11]

Such paintings as Green Tree Form reflect the identification of the general in the specific and the subjective engagement with the object is given an extra poignancy through the formal allusion to a human dimension. Following the established trend to discuss Sutherland’s methods in literary terms, Melville described his forms as ‘visual metaphors’. He explained: ‘it is not a question so much of a “tree like a figure” or a “root like a figure” - it is a question of bringing out the anonymous personality of these things; at the same time they must bear the mould of their ancestry. There is a duality; they can be themselves and something else at the same time.’[12] It was through this multiplicity of meanings that Sutherland was seen to have revitalised landscape painting.

The fallen tree was an established motif, as demonstrated by works such as Richard Wilson’s Fallen Tree at Ariccia, c.1754-6 (Earl of Pembroke collection).[13] More contemporaneously, Sutherland’s concentration on natural objects echoed Paul Nash’s paintings and photographs of the 1930s. Nash had shown photographic collages of roots at the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936[14] and had them reproduced in Myfanwy Evans’s The Painter’s Object (1937) to which Sutherland also contributed.[15] It is unlikely, however, that Sutherland would have known the Monster Field series of photographs of 1939 (Tate Gallery Archive) which is closest to Green Tree Form. [16] In these, trees take on animal-like form, but earlier Nash had used them as symbols of the human body. In the works he made as an Official War Artist in the First World War, such as We Are Making a New World, 1918 (Imperial War Museum),[17] Nash might be thought to have employed the blasted and broken tree as a substitute for the dead bodies which he was forbidden to depict. A fallen tree took on a similar symbolic role in Edward Thomas’s almost contemporary poem, As the Team’s Head-Brass.[18] That trees became especially prevalent in Sutherland’s work during the political crisis of the late 1930s and in the war thus takes on a particular significance, as does the representation of oaks, a traditional symbol of England, in such works as Association of Oaks, 1940 (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh) [19] or Blasted Oak, 1941 (private collection),[20] made during the Blitz.

A contemporary critic saw in this work ‘nature as rank growth, luxuriant but oppressive, haunting and untamed’.[21] Similarly, James Thrall Soby wrote of the ‘aggressive morphology’ of Sutherland’s work, which he associated with Max Ernst’s Histoire Naturelle,[22] and Green Tree Form has been described as ‘a menacing anthropomorphic image’.[23] The tree resonates with a sexualised human presence, its two branches forming legs with their junction so painted as to suggest the curvature of buttocks. In this way the composition is very similar to the near contemporary Association of Oaks in which the curvaceous forms of the two tree-figures, which are slightly reminiscent of Edward Burra’s eroticised figures of the late 1930s, imbue them with a sexual tension. This aspect was recognised in Green Tree Form at the time, with the critic Raymond Mortimer complaining that, despite being the best painting in Sutherland’s 1940 exhibition, it was ‘too breasted for [his] taste’.[24] More recently, a Sadean eroticism has been suggested: with this work clearly in mind, Nanette Aldred has written, ‘the landscape is transformed into violent images of fetishized female bodies, fragmented and grotesque they are like the manipulated and mutilated forms of Hans Bellmer’s poupées which were shown opposite Henry Moore’s work in the International Surrealist Exhibition’.[25] There is a superficial resemblence between the roots of Green Tree Form and the photographs of assembled mannequins that Bellmer had shown in London under the title Variations on the Assemblage of an Articulated Child which augments the artist’s interest in the sinister side of nature with hints of a violent eroticism.

Thus, one might see in such works as Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods Sutherland’s use of surrealist ideas to reformulate the traditional landscape genre for a post-Freudian world. In that way he might be thought to address through organic forms the general theme of human cruelty and the specific anxieties of that historical moment.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Repr. Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pl.22
[2] Repr. Ibid., pls. 23a-b
[3] Repr. Robert Melville, Graham Sutherland, London 1950, pl.12b
[4] Graham Sutherland, letter to Tate Gallery, 11 April 1953, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[5] Graham Sutherland, letter to Tate Gallery, 15 Nov. 1957, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[6] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.11d
[7] Repr. ibid., pl.9b
[8] Graham Sutherland, ‘Modern Art Explained by Modern Artists: Interview with R. Myerscough-Walker’, The Artist, March 1944, republished in Sutherland 1982, p.56
[9] William Blake, Auguries of Innocence in David V. Erdman (ed.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, New York 1982, p.490
[10] Melville 1950, unpaginated
[11] Quoted in Cooper 1961, p.17
[12] Melville 1950, unpaginated
[13] Repr. David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson: The Landscape of Reaction, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.191, no.75
[14] New Burlington Galleries, London, June-July 1936
[15] Paul Nash, ‘Swanage, or Seaside Surrealism’ in Myfanwy Evans, The Painter’s Object, London 1937, pp.108-15
[16] Repr. Andrew Causey, Paul Nash’s Photographs: Document and Image, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1973, nos.88-9
[17] Repr. Margot Eates, Paul Nash: Paintings, Drawings and Illustrations, 1948, pl.10 (col.)
[18] R.S. Thomas (ed.), Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, London 1964, pp.36-7
[19] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.25
[20] Repr. Hayes 1982, p.80, pl.42
[21] Charles Doubleday, ‘Graham Sutherland by Edward Sackville-West’, Architectural Review, vol.96, July 1944, p.28
[22] James Thrall Soby, Contemporary Painters, New York 1948, p.136
[23] Hayes 1982, p.78
[24] Raymond Mortimer, ‘Notes on Shows’, New Statesman and Nation, vol.19, no.481, 11 May 1940, p.613
[25] Nannette Aldred, Graham Sutherland: The Early Years 1920-40, exh. cat., Goldsmiths’ Gallery, London 1986, p.

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