RA Magazine Summer 2012
Issue Number: 115
London preview: David Nash RA's Treetop art
Four years after its triumphant show of Henry Moore’s sculptures, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is providing its unique setting for an exhibition by the consummate sculptor in wood David Nash RA. Thomas Pakenham meets him at work on site at Kew
The sculptor is David Nash RA and he will be working for half a year at what he calls a ‘wood quarry’ at Kew Gardens. He has brought 18 of his own existing sculptures: warped columns, twisting ladders, charred wooden boulders, shattered thrones, some half hidden in the Temperate House or the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, others scattered in open glades. Most of these are carved in one piece from the bodies of ancient oak trees. And in the wood quarry he plans to carve dashing new sculptures from the grizzled veterans of the gardens that have come to the end of their natural span.
So Nash will have two high-profile incarnations at Kew. He will be the artist in residence 40 feet up on a cherry-picker, goggled and boiler-suited, hewing off arms of old trees with a chain-saw. And he will be the curator of this exhibition during a complete cycle of the seasons. This means he will explain to the public the ‘language of wood’ with the help of film clips and drawings.
David Nash RA making work for his exhibition at Kew Gardens, 2012. © Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.
In early May I met Nash on-site. He silenced the shriek of the chain-saw, climbed down from the cherry-picker and took off his face mask, which was covered in sawdust. He’s 66, but life in the treetops has kept him young, and he seemed good humour itself. I asked him to explain the concept of a wood quarry. ‘Look behind me. That’s a vein of oak – like a vein of copper in a quarry.’ What was the attraction of working on site rather than having sections of trees brought to him in his workshop? ‘You can see where the tree started its life. You can climb it and explore it.’ Did he have a preconceived idea of the sculpture he would make of it? ‘No, I feel my way. I try to be responsive to my material and follow what the wood is suggesting.’ He added, with a smile, ‘I draw with my saw.’
Then he showed me how he was working with the vein of oak behind him. A week earlier, it was an 80ft-high oak tree in the Cedar Vista that leads from the Pagoda to the Thames. Now it’s a 40-foot-high column, having been felled because it was dying from the damage caused by Bora beetles. It was glowing with the eerie brightness of freshly cut wood, and slowly taking shape as a column of rings. ‘I’ve done lots of columns before but not with that form – a clean column with a curving movement – not just a straight piece of wood. I’ll have to work with those curves.’ Beside it on the grass were its upper trunks and branches splayed out like two tripods.
Oaks, with their twisted roots and zigzag branches, certainly dominate his work. I particularly admired the shell-like creation in the Temperate House hewn from an inverted giant root plate. I asked him what he felt about the species. Did he find ancient oaks (as I do) overpowering, aggressive, even brutal? He was surprised at the question. ‘I see oaks as rather cautious trees.’ They grow in two phases during the season, unlike other trees, as if they need reassurance that it is safe to go forward. He liked that. ‘I’m cautious myself.’
We talked about the different countries in which he had been invited to work, and how he had been inspired by the local wood and the woodmen who used it. ‘In Japan I had a team of four woodmen with block and tackle. Of course they spoke Japanese, but they also spoke wood. And I speak wood. Sometimes they would get ahead of me – or at any rate they knew what I wanted to do. But they did everything too neatly. Neatness is in their blood. I thought they would hate me because my work is so rough. But they didn’t. They felt it represented freedom.’
Travelling abroad has clearly broadened Nash’s view of his own art. The thought of growing old, too, has made him concentrate more on drawing – fittingly using charcoal.
Nash has also begun to make sculptures in materials other than wood. Some of his wooden sculptures have been re-created as editions in bronze or cast iron, and some of these will be on show at this exhibition. In China, in 2009, he made several knobbly mounds (‘bonks’ he calls them) in cast iron. Together they form his work Chinese Irons which will be displayed outside the John Nash Conservatory at Kew.
But the themes that still inspire him are the ones that have haunted the artist since boyhood. To work with wood is to pay homage to nature, the source of all life. You can see Nash’s sculptures of ladders, chairs and tables as magic symbols of our debt to nature. And where better for wood to work its magic than in the Arcadian glades at Kew.
- 'David Nash', Kew Gardens, London, www.kew.org,
9 June–14 April 2013
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