Ancient Shaftesbury Oaks Celebrated In Art Exhibition

People are passionate about trees in Shaftesbury. Just the fact that our town has its own Tree Group reveals the strong level of interest.

That could explain why, on a dismal and wet Friday morning, so many people dodged the downpours to view Gary Cook’s latest exhibition, Tree Life, in the Shaftesbury Arts Centre Gallery. Or it could simply be because Gary’s art is very good and the word had spread about his show. “There’s a general feeling that people are connecting more with nature. People are really interested in the trees. There’s been lots of people in and it’s been really lovely,” said Gary

The West Melbury-based artist captures the essence of our local landmark trees and woodlands in evocative and enchanting paintings, inks or charcoals. Gary has many local fans but his work is loved far beyond North Dorset. The former Sunday Times Senior Artist won ‘Best in Show’ at the Society of Graphic Fine Art’s annual exhibition last year and the well-deserved recognition continues.

“I’ve got a couple of paintings selected for the Royal Institute of Watercolour Artists. They are on show at the moment at the Mall Gallery in London. It is nice to get selected and to have them hung up there. If you become a member then you can put ‘RI’ after your name, but I think it’s quite a long process to get into the actual society. It takes about three years to become part of the club – if you get in,” Gary laughed.

Gary Cook

Gary is passionate about trees because he cares about the environment. He is Arts Editor for ‘The Ecologist’ and last year his exhibition highlighted the risk to North Dorset’s ash woodlands, posed by the ash dieback fungus, which brings leaf loss in infected trees.

But his new Tree Life exhibition focuses instead on the oak, a tree that has a special place in British history, heritage and even pub names. “I think everybody you know can identify an oak tree. It’s embedded in us now. They are a special tree,” said Gary.

Sadly, like the ash trees, our mighty oaks are under threat. “Once I started looking into it, I realised that oak trees are in trouble as well because of development,” said Gary. “We’ve only got 2% of our ancient woodlands remaining. HS2 is going through a few ancient woodlands. We really need to protect these trees.”

Gary got the idea for featuring oak trees in an exhibition when a Marnhull couple commissioned him to paint a tree that was special to them. “It’s a lovely tree. It’s near their house, quite high up, just looking over Blackmore Vale. It’s really special,” said Gary

North Dorset’s iconic Silton Oak, which stands in a field near Bourton, takes pride of place in Gary’s exhibition. “It is just up the road and it is 1,000 years old. It’s just incredible what it’s actually seen and what it has lived through. When the Battle of Hastings happened in 1066, it was already 50 years old. It was 500 years old when Henry VIII started his reign. Before I really started looking into it, I’d walk past a tree and didn’t really think that it had been here for centuries,” said Gary.

If you visit Gary’s exhibition you’ll learn the formula for working out the age of a tree. “If you measure the trunk, then roughly one meter equals a century of growth,” said Gary. “The Woodland Trust has got a really good website where, if you type in the circumference of a trunk, it’ll tell you the age of the tree.”

Gary’s paintings feature the Silton Oak in the moonlight. It’s magical. “I try to go back to each tree that I paint and look at it in different light because it does change how you see it and it just changes the shape of it. I love it when there’s a misty or foggy day. In Shaftesbury we’re quite lucky we get quite a few of those. It makes such a difference.”

The Silton Oak is well known and Gary says that made it harder to portray. “So many artists have painted it and there are so many photographs of it. I tried to do it with moonlight behind it, just trying to pick out its best points,” he said.

There are more local oak trees featured in the exhibition. “We’ve got two that are in The Donheads. There’s a lovely 500-year-old oak there and one at Wardour Castle – I think that’s 700 years old. It is just in front of the castle, on the farm. There’s another in West Melbury. We’ve just got so many dotted around you don’t really realise,” said Gary.

If you have never spent time looking at or thinking about trees, call into Gary’s exhibition. It may change the way you see the world around Shaftesbury. Tree Life is on until Tuesday 9th April at Shaftesbury Arts Centre.