In 1822, Frederick Law Olmstead was born, one of America’s foremost landscape architects, responsible for the design of many important parks and urban landscapes including Central Park in New York, Mount Royal Park in Montreal and the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls, American’s oldest state park.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, in the rugged rural landscape of Yorkshire, an ash tree sprang to life on Monckton Walk Farm, which today is the home of Dr Andrew Dunning, the 89 year-old grandfather of British designer Max Lamb. What history does that tree remember? How many wars and storms has it lived through? How many prime ministers and monarchs – Lord Liverpool was then the Tory Prime Minister and George IV was on the throne. In the same year, the last public whipping took place in Scotland and the last man was hung for shoplifting in London while, looking to the future, Charles Babbage published his proposal for a “difference engine”, a forerunner of the modern computer. Over the years, the tree has watched how new technology has transformed our modern world.
Alas, the time came when decay and old age took its toll and the tree had to be taken down. Max Lamb wanted to give the tree a new life in its death and rather than chopping the tree and burning the timber, decided to celebrate its life and history by cutting the tree slowly and carefully into 131 logs of “furniture” height to enable them to survive as stools, tables, chairs, with their growth rings intact, respecting natural features such as knots, branches and crotches.
This reflection on the life of the tree “My Grandfather’s Tree – Monkton Walk Farm – 1822-2009″ was displayed at Somerset House in partnership with Gallery FUMI as part of the London Design Festival 2015 in the central of the Embankment galleries, a space large enough to show the whole tree.
Ai Waiwai also celebrates the historic life and symbolism of trees in the Annenberg Courtyard at the Royal Academy in London where eight of his “Tree” sculptures provide shade and shadow to the courtyard and reflect on the history of the country in which the trees grew before they were felled and cut up. Ai buys parts of dead trees sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, Jiangzi (no doubt also saving them from a fiery death) and then creates new “trees” in his studio in Beijing with carpenters using traditional hidden mortice and tenon joints, to which industrial nuts and bolts are added “provoking an uncomfortable tension between the visible and the invisible, the refined and the unrefined” (RA Catalogue). These trees too tell a story, said to represent the development of the Chinese nation from geographically and cultural diverse people, with some connections subtle and hidden and some jarringly obvious and perhaps un-necessary.