Oak trees at Blenheim Palace, copyright Simon Norfolk
Simon Norfolk is best known for his large-scale, allegorical landscapes, showing the war-torn remains of the Afghan hinterland in gentle, morning light, or the now-pastoral scenes that were the sites of past atrocities in Bosnia. So his latest commission may come as a surprise.
A series of close-in photographs of trees, they are shot with lights against a backdrop of artificial smoke.
But for Norfolk, they are no less a comment on war and its lasting effects on the landscape. For one thing, they are shot in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, given to a general, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, for his victories in battle by a grateful nation. And legend has it that these oaks were even laid out in the same formation as the troops at the start of the Battle of Blenheim on 13 August 1704.
They also recall the “Napoleon Oaks” planted across England in the 18th century to furnish the British Navy with the raw materials to build battle ships. Blenheim Palace donated 129 oaks to the war effort, taken from its former medieval hunting ground.
Norfolk shot the trees on commission for the Historic Houses Association and Christies Garden of the Year, when the auctioneer’s head of photographs and 20th century decorative art and design, Philippe Garner, approached him and asked if he’d like to get involved.
Garner had commissioned some unorthodox garden photography for the project (John Davies and Chrystel Lebas were also involved), allowing his photographers to take their own approach.
When Norfolk first saw the gardens at Blenheim, for example, he was uninspired by what he termed the “rhododendrons and church fêtes” feel of the place, but liked the gnarled, old oak trees as soon as he saw them. When he found out more about them knew he had his subject.
“A contemporary guidebook by William Fordice Mavor made the extraordinary suggestion about the tree layout,” he says. “These layers of history get lost along the way, but they’re 10 times more interesting than the official line.”
Norfolk opted to shoot the trees at night and used smoke and lights to separate the oaks from the rest of the garden, partly to show off their sculptural qualities against an otherwise uninspiring landscape, but also to make a metaphorical point – to him, they look like the last men standing at a fire and brimstone battle.
And although it’s a step away from earlier projects in aesthetic terms, for him it’s similar terrain from a theoretical point of view. While his project in Afghanistan (Chronotopia) drew on the allegorical landscape painting of Nicolas Poussin, for example, this project draws on English cultural myths such as Merrie England and the legend of Robin Hood.
“Oak trees are part of the British cultural identity,” says Norfolk. “Three thousand years of war has shaped the way we look at ourselves.”
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