24 March 2016

A legacy of ancient oaks

A fascinating legacy of drawings was recently gifted to Kew from the Felix Dennis Estate.

By Sian Mean

A graphite drawing by Mark Frith featured in the exhibition

Felix Dennis

"Whosoever plants a tree, winks at immortality" - Felix Dennis

At the end of last year Kew’s Library, Art and Archives took delivery of the first of ten very large scale drawings by artist Mark Frith from the estate of the late Felix Dennis. Inspired by the grandeur of Britain's ancient oak trees, many of which are believed to be more than a thousand years old, artist Mark Frith approached the publisher, poet, philanthropist and planter of trees Felix Dennis and proposed a series of drawings of millennial oaks. Equally passionate about these magnificent veterans, Felix Dennis commissioned a twenty drawing series. Frith’s intricate graphite works detail the individual nature of each tree, helping to document the results of a millennium of growth.

The drawing was installed in time to coincide with the opening of our new exhibition Brazil – a powerhouse of plants - Margaret Mee, pioneering artist and her legacy. Although displayed separately from the current tropical themed exhibition, it echoes the fine detail and majesty of Masumi Yamanaka’s large watercolour illustrations of Kew’s Heritage Trees. Visitors to last year’s exhibition may recall that we displayed several historic volumes from Kew’s extensive Library collection including Sylva, Or, a Discourse of Forest Trees by John Evelyn. Published in 1664, it is understood to be one of Felix Dennis’ favourite publications from his extensive private collection of books of trees. [1]

A twenty drawing commission

These large scale graphite drawings measuring 1.7m wide were part of a 20 drawing commission. The series took the artist three and a half years to complete and was finished just before Felix Dennis’s death in June 2014. Following Felix Dennis's wishes, his estate bequeathed ten of the twenty drawings to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Thanks to a specially commissioned frame gifted by the Heart of England Forest we will be able to show the drawings on rotation at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. The drawings to be housed permanently in Kew's Illustration Collection are:  

The Great Oak (Nibley Green), Bowthorpe Oak (Lincolnshire), Pontafadog Oak (Powys), Marton Oak (Cheshire), The Old Man of Calke (Derbyshire), Darley Oak (Cornwall), Fredville Oak (Kent), Offa’s Oak (Windsor Great Park), Queen Elizabeth Oak (Sussex) and the Capon Oak (Borders).

The remaining ten drawings that will be temporarily stored and exhibited at Kew include:

The Wyndham’s Oak (Dorset), Gospel Oak (Herefordshire), Chaceley Oak (Gloucestershire), Mottisfont Oak (Dorset), Jack of Kent’s, (Herefordshire), King John Oak (Devon), Billy Wilkins (Dorset), Major Oak (Nottinghamshire), Lydham Manor Oak (Shropshire) and the Spernal Oak (Warwickshire).

These were bequeathed to Felix Dennis's charity, the Heart of England Forest, in Warwickshire, where they will, in time, be displayed at the visitor centre. The Heart of England Forest is a charity dedicated to accomplishing Felix Dennis's life work and dream of creating a new, 30,000 acre, indigenous forest in the heart of England. So far more than 1 million broadleaf trees have been planted, which in turn have help protect the habitats of endangered native wildlife species.

Oaks at Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is home to over 1,000 specimens of English oak (Quercus robur), so why not visit to see them in their stunning surroundings? Discover further information about the history, uses and cultivation of one of Britain's most well known native trees on our website. 

Brazil - a powerhouse of plants - Margaret Mee, pioneering artist and her legacy  is on display until 28 August 2016.

- Sian Mean - 

Gallery Manager


1  Guinness, B. (20.07.2014) Obituary ‘Felix Dennis and his forest of good fortune’, The Daily Telegraph [Online]. Accessed 18.03.2016.

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