In the shade of the plane trees

July 25, 2013

Handel's trees (artist's book by Liz Mathews, text by Frances Bingham)

The most recent work in my Singing the Year collection of Books of Hours and contemporary illuminated manuscripts is a celebration of summer. Handel’s trees is an artist’s book made from a single sheet of handmade paper (70cm x 50cm approx), torn and folded into a sequence of pages.

Handel's trees (detail), artist's book by Liz Mathews, text by Frances Bingham

The text is from London Panopticon, Frances Bingham’s docu-fantasia travelogue where the writer explores in a leap of historical imagination the idea that Handel’s aria Ombra mai fu was inspired by the young plane trees being planted in London squares at that time, now grown into such ancient and venerable trees as those in Brunswick Square, beside the Foundling Hospital, Handel’s favourite charity. The text is lettered with sticks from these trees:

Liz Mathews lettering Handel's trees with plane tree sticks

The story is told in a dream recounted by Wose – ‘an outdoor-dweller, tree obsessed, with an old wild mad wind-filled voice’:

‘I lie down, yes, under the plane trees’ huge green umbrella, like an Emperor in a green pavilion.  The branch-limbs of these giants are long as a great tree themselves, arms outreached across the whole garden, vast gentle mammoth leviathan creatures.

‘I dreamed there with my head on the roots, tree-memory rising up like sap, recall in the grain of the wood-rings.  The planes were saplings, small as an ordinary apple, like the ones on the pavements planted after, later.  They were set out as they are now, in the square garden, but with everything younger, just newly growing.  A stout man was walking around on the grass beneath the trees, humming, in his blue coat like a frock. He lay down under one of them, in the shade, and took off his long white curling hair suddenly.  He was happy, thinking of those other plane trees before, the foreign ones whose transplanted seeds sprouted here so well.

‘Then in my dream there was music; another man came strolling along, whistling as though to himself, but it was greeting.  He was tall, all in red velvet, very dark, like a holly-plant himself, and when he sang his voice was very high, high as a boy’s but full, purely sweet.  His song was foreign too, but I understood it as the trees understand, by the sound.

My beloved plane tree, with your beautiful soft leaves, may your fortune be bright!  Let no thunder or lightning or ravaging storms disturb your sweet peace, nor the boisterous south wind profane it.

‘He touched the tree trunks as he sang to them, circled them slowly, knelt down at the foot of the one by his friend, who conducted a little, then applauded him.  In my dream the trees shivered with pleasure as they listened, understood the compliment.  In my dream, the charm protected them, sung into the heartwood, even when two were blown apart by the sky-smelt, so the charred huge stumps grew greenly again.

Never was tree-shade so dear, so friendly and sweet…

‘Presently he stopped singing, and began to read instead, leaning back against the pillar of trunk with his legs stretched out.  The other one fell asleep, but the trees remained.

In the shade of the plane trees let the foundlings sing!’

Handel's trees (front cover and slipcase)

Handel's trees (page 1)

Handel's trees (page 2)

Handel's trees (page 3)

Handel's trees (page 4)

Handel's trees (page 5)

Handel's trees (page 6)

Handel's trees (back cover and slipcase) text by Frances Bingham

For more on my artist’s books and my new Singing the Year collection, please see Artist’s books & bookworks.

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