Marks from the Charcoal Kiln
My earliest memories of charcoal came from secondary school art lessons. Art was always one of favourite subjects (one of the only ones in which you could listen to music and eat skittles) but when you are first introduced to a new medium, there follows weeks of learning ‘basic techniques’ before you’re allowed to properly play with it. Our early charcoal lessons were all about light and shadow, drawing apples, cardboard tubes and old boots, and emerging hours later with dark smudges up our arms and black dust in our hair. It may come as no surprise, then, that in my own minor career as an artist, I’ve never touched charcoal, drawn instead to reassuringly quick-drying acrylic paints and the humble graphite pencil. Yet sometimes, friends, the universe entices us out of our comfort zones.
When I visited Westonbirt Arboretum last week, we passed a small clearing where, I was told, some of the team turn spare fragments of wood into charcoal. This was a running theme throughout the arboretum - never wasting a scrap of wood, but turning it into something useful instead. Coppicing at Westonbirt dates back to 1245 (possibly earlier), and today the trees in their coppicing area are managed on a 7 year cycle, providing huge ecological benefits for the wildlife that lives there. When certain canopies are removed in a woodland, the extra sunlight streams down onto the forest floor and provides a microclimate for wildflowers and butterflies, which then leads to bramble growth and nesting areas for birds, before growing up into new trees and starting the whole cycle again. It creates a mosaic of habitats, which leads to further biodiversity.
The best thing about coppicing are the beautiful by-products made from sustainable timber - hurdles, shingles, bundles of faggots, firewood, furniture, trinkets - and charcoal. When we passed the Westonbirt charcoal kiln, we were greeted by two forestry workers who had just finished making a pot of artists’ charcoal from fresh willow. They kindly offered me a few to take home, and dspite my prejudice against it, I felt the forest was giving me a sign - to use these little sticks to capture something unique from my visit.
I returned home and completely loved drawing these semi-abstract sketches of two of my favourite species at the arboretum. The first is the Holford pine (Pinus x holfordiana), named after the arboretum founder Robert Holford who collected and cared for so many beautiful species from around the world. This pine popped up by itself in the arboretum grounds, hybridising itself out of the Mexican white pine and the Bhutan pine. The second is the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis), thought to be extinct until 1994, when an explorer called David Noble stumbled upon a specimen while climbing mountains in Australia. It comes from the same family as the monkey puzzle and you can definitely see those same Jurassic Park vibes.
Thank you to the Westonbirt team for reforming my relationship with charcoal! Perhaps this will be the start of something new…