Paul Johnson

Autumn, grand despoiler of beauty, and truth-teller

Autumn, grand despoiler of beauty, and truth-teller

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So autumn has come again, with her blushing and animating hand, searing and spotting, tinting and flaming, making hectic and encrimsoning, concealing decay, death and coming annihilation behind a mesmerising anarchy of colour. I have been out painting, down in Somerset, trying to get down on my oblongs of Whatman the blazing furnaces of reds, yellows and golds in my garden, beyond it and beyond the place where the indigenous fowl — geese, ducks and chickens mostly — fend off the rooks which raid their food from the darkening sky, a line of gilded birches glitter fantastical against the dark green fields. Autumn does not last: there is one perfect day when the entire chromatic symphony strikes a note of angelic harmony, with the sky a perfect eggshell blue if you are lucky, and you must grab that one day and paint furiously before the winds strike a hideous discord and blow away the enchantment.

The more I age, the more I like and respect trees, which grow old gracefully and acquire the wisdom which eludes us — me anyway. As the winds come, they spread their branches with the confidence born of many winters of survival, and dig their roots deeper into the soil. They do not mind losing the leaves, mere outer garments, as ephemeral as the Paris fashions when great masters like Dior and Balenciaga manipulated them with dismissive insolence. The leaves are the mere dividends of the seasons, sprouting from the permanent capital of wood and pulp, the inner guard and unguents beneath the bark, itself inviolable against the weather and protecting all within. It is good to draw trees when they are losing or have lost their leaves — bare ruin’d choirs, as Shakespeare says — for then their wooden architecture stands out naked in all its relentless logic and system, infinitely complex yet also massively simple, like the majestic columns and arches of Exeter, whose interior is the finest and warmest of any mediaeval cathedral — the Sistine Chapel of Gothic. Without their leaves to clothe and confuse, trees acquire their true visual character and tell you their life stories: where they shot up, supreme and confident in their youth, when they took their first determinative bend, when they bifurcated, perhaps foolishly, for climatic reasons which seemed good at the time, when they decided to push upward on another main trunk, where they lost a valuable but suspect limb in a terrible December storm — good riddance, the tap-trunk said — and where a foolish woodman lopped off a perfectly sound branch, like the wicked Hyde Park rangers who took away the big lower branches of the five enormous horse chestnuts that guard the northern entrance to Kensington Gardens, and so destroyed their perfect natural symmetry.

A fashionable woman told me not long ago, ‘I spend a vast amount of money and, much more important, one third of my time making myself look beautiful: with trainers, dentists, cosmetic surgeons, hairdressers, beauticians, dieticians, dressmakers and all the rest of them — some angels and real experts; some frauds, all greedily chipping away at my private time. And then, the moment I captivate a man, which presumably is the object of the whole operation, I face the prospect of taking it all off and being my own bare, unpainted, tousled self, naked and, I must confess, by no means unashamed. What a bloody waste!’ (as John Osborne said when he died just after having £20,000 of work done on his teeth: his last words, apparently). Leaves are the haute couture and cosmetics of trees en grande toilette. Better without such frippery, you say? No: let’s not go too far. The spring shoots, the summer foliage and autumn tinting of trees are part of their glorious virtuosity and to be valued and enjoyed in due season. But the wood is the body of the tree, its bones and machinery, its life-system, its essence.

Time was when I found trees hard to draw and paint because I did so in the summer, mainly. It was only when I started to study trees systematically and draw them in winter that I made real progress. That was why D