It’s a cliché to say clichés are often such because of their truth. England, oak trees, Sherwood forest, where everything comes together to evoke a mythic nationhood that never existed but is as real as anything named. There are ancient trees in Sherwood, and Robin Hood may well be buried within the roots of one of them. The oak is more even than this, more then than the logo of the National Trust. It is tenuous and tenacious. Ubiquitous but still noteworthy.
Andrew MacCullum’s painting in Manchester City Art Gallery has a sense of this. It is a stand-out picture in its corner of the room, where it doesn’t suffer from being at the wrong height, or from glare. It has a subtly different texture to the work around it. No narrative, no figures. Without the title-card you wouldn’t necessarily know it was oak trees, or Sherwood. Humans are not absent, and there’s an attractive trackway to help you find your way back. The view point is not one that you would mark on an OS map or put into a book of one hundred best views.
The tree foregrounded leans back as if at ease, or basks in the light thrown upon it. The scattering of trees around each have their own space, and a confidence in themselves. None have the grandeur of the ancient oaks with the walking-stick frames; these are mature, virile beasts, they have aged well and deserve respect.
I’m not altogether sure of the time of year – summer days can often feel like bright mid-winter – but these trees are naked and the browns feel late autumn. Maybe they feel more alive for the lack, as the branches wave and dance gently by themselves to the blue-grey sky. It’s a scene of contemplation, and it does something else.
The picture is allied with a project, to educate the people and bring beauty to the lives of the impoverished. MacCullum’s picture came to Manchester for the Art Museum, whose founder Thomas Horsfall set up in 1884. He was a man with a mission to ‘show people the best pictures you can get of beautiful common things… and when they next see the thing which the picture represented they will see in it beauty which, but for the picture, they would not see.’ This picture viscerally achieves that thing that we all believe art can do, to help you see slightly differently, perhaps slightly more intently, a re-orientation to the common-place. Now a track through a wood, regardless of its history, cultural allusions, view-point, has the potential to be a revelation.