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Book Review: The Splendour of the Tree

Splendour of the TreeWritten by Noel Kingsbury, Photographs by Andrea Jones, The Splendour of the Tree: An Illustrated History, (London: Frances Lincoln, September 2014) £25

The Splendour of the Tree is a splendid book.  Looking at over 90 trees across  six different categories – antiquity, ecology, sacred, utility, food and ornament – it has a series of short essays by Noel Kingsbury with  photos  by Andrea Jones.

It’s a page-turner too. Kingbsury’s writing has a deft, light [but definitely not lightweight] touch.  His knowledge and love of trees, and his ecological concerns are all  obvious throughout, and  there all sorts of hidden nuggets – did you know that the density of hawthorn wood makes for the hottest fires of any European tree species? Or that male white mulberry flowers have a catapult mechanism that ejects pollen at half the speed of sound, the fastest movement in the plant kingdom?  But ultimately the essays are short and only serve as an appetizer to wanting to know more.

Yet what initially makes you turn the pages are the photos.  Stunning, colour-drenched, some almost abstract,  they drag your eye over shots of tree-filled landscapes, past magnificent single trees, to close-ups of barks, leaves and flowers, often taken from a subtly different viewpoint from which one might expect. Usually images are the subtle accompaniment to the text. That is definitely not the case here.

BUT, and there’s always a but isn’t there, I have to wonder who the audience is supposed to be. This is not clearly intended to become a standard reference book. Nor is it a practical book, despite the publishers claims that it has ‘an indispensible cultivation section’. [It doesn’t actually have any cultivation information].  It’s not comprehensive in its breadth or depth of coverage. It’s not about how to select trees. It’s really not a history of trees either despite its subtitle, nor is it really about the ecology of trees.  It’s a splendid book but just a splendid coffee-table book, and sadly, I’m not sure what reason one would have for picking it up and looking at it more than once or twice? 

If that sounds negative about the content it’s not. In fact it’s because I think the  content is undersold whilst the rather arbitrary format is overrated.  I suspect the publishers have missed a trick. Several, if not all, of the six sections would have made a volume in its own right and a book on, say Sacred Trees would have allowed Kingsbury to write something more in-depth and readers to see more of Jones’s beautiful photographs, within a much more coherent purposeful structure.  Maybe one day….

David Marsh

6 November 2014