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2nd October 2023

Paul Joyce: An Artist’s Memories of Sycamore Gap

The artist and photographer Paul Joyce considers the death of an iconic tree

Hadrian’s Wall started construction about AD 122 and took nearly a decade to complete. It was intended to “keep the barbarians at bay” but it certainly failed to do so a couple of nights ago when the most famous tree of this legendary boundary was hacked down.

At first a 16 year old was suspected, but currently the opinion has grown that the perpetrator was an older professional with a heavy professional chainsaw. This act of wanton destruction has provoked intense reactions not just in the UK but worldwide as at least a million foreign visitors descended on the site every year. Adult locals have been reduced to tears and police have urged people to stay away from the site, even those who genuinely just want to honour the memory of what had become for many an icon of regeneration of the natural world in the force of relentless technological advances.

The Roman treatment of prisoners does not make for pleasant reading. Any near at hand to The Coliseum would have been tossed into the arena willy-nilly, whist others in foreign climes would have been subject to beatings, amputations, and numerous other indignities up to and including Crucifixion. Many others above and beyond Jesus Christ were accorded that privilege.

Sycamore Gap, where the tree dominated the landscape for many centuries, has overnight been stripped of both its tangible and intangible magic. It formed a natural end point for many travellers who had just come to see it, and others who passed by as they walked the Wall, stopping to gaze at it in wonder.

The tree has been in my own consciousness for over half a century, and I remember well visiting it one winter over 40 years ago with the photographer and artist, Chris Wainwright. We were then experimenting with photographic images of ritual fires in the landscape. Around dusk we lit flares which we carried around and across the tree, having set up a large field camera on a tripod to take time exposures. We were in our own way paying homage to ancestors who celebrated key events in their calendar with the use of fire in its various forms.

We were of course very careful not to do any damage, or leave traces of our presence there. Whoever is responsible for this senseless act deserves, in my opinion at least, to be accorded some of the delights awaiting Roman prisoners of war. At the very least I would force them to walk the length of the wall (without shoes) picking up any litter they might find on the way.

If I had the talent of say, a David Nash, I would suggest erecting a piece of sculpture in place of the fallen warrior. If initiated quickly, a mound could be cast from the remains of the felled icon and re-erected there as a permanent reminder of one of the most beautiful and well-loved trees in not just the British Isles, but world-wide as well.

The fact that the totemic Gap Sycamore was felled is probably, at least in part, due to its being used by Kevin Costner in his “Robin Hood” epic and therefore its unavoidable and graphic location received world-wide exposure. As it happens, the painting which accompanies this piece was done some time before this tragic event occurred, as it is a location I always returned to when going anywhere close to the Scottish borders.

On this particular visit, in the constructed stone circle near the base of the tree, which I took to be the remains of on old sheep pen, was a small tree growing – an almost exact replica of its bigger sister. If only that sapling had been taken care of, it would provide a perfect substitute for its now decapitated parent.

Great British artists such as Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious would talk openly about “the spirit of a place” which would draw them to, and then in the case of Nash, in one sense through the object to a world beyond – part-mythical, part spiritual. This led them to unique and unforgettable depictions of landscapes part real but almost wholly imagined.

As some folks would tackle the Munroe Hills or run up as many mountains as possible in 24 hours, so I would seek out these magical places in order to try and follow Nash and his circle towards my own personal Arcadia. This is in part the reason for my series of paintings of “Great British Landscapes” of which this marks the first; to share these crucially important physical touchstones and, so to speak, roll the boulder back from the cave entrance, allowing light in from a more peaceful, better organised and artistically constructed world.



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