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A feature by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!





David Nash at Kew: A Natural Gallery


Torso 2011


Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

Kew Gardens

9 June 2012 – 14 April 2013


The many delights of Kew Gardens will play themselves out in your mind’s eye long after your all too short visit has ended. I say short, because there is so much to admire and learn about at Kew, all of it, nature related. So the art of David Nash, made from, and/or inspired by trees whose lives have naturally drawn to a close, sits well with all of the wondrous splendours of the Gardens’ palatial green grounds.

Being at Kew is healthier than spending a day at a spa, as you couldn’t get more oxygenated in a forest. Nearly every species of tree on earth is represented there, and each specimen is carefully tended and allowed room enough in which to expand and grow to its fullest height and girth. The results, which have evolved over the years since the time of George III, through Kew’s Victorian renaissance, are breath-taking beyond belief visually, and the feeling of being among so many live, gently green capped giants is truly, awe-inspiring. For a tree lover, it’s the equivalent of being in a cathedral or other sacred space. To find Nash’s wood inspired art among such vibrant, sheltering surroundings is an unmitigated delight.  I’d admired Henry Moore’s sprawling abstract figures in Kew’s verdant landscape some years ago, but knew nothing of Nash’s work until it was before me in Kew Gardens, my most loved of London’s attractions, where I stood, taking it all in, an appropriate and unexpectedly informative experience.

Nash’s feeling for trees and wood is a deep passion he has devoted his life to exploring and sharing. On our way to the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, which we’d never visited before, we were able to enjoy two large scale sculptural installations by Nash, one created from charred tree remains, the other, cork bark, which we found surprisingly poignant, as our instant correlation was to increasing deforestation, all the more tragic as trees are, of course, the lungs of the world.


Cork Dome 2012


Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew


Inside the gallery, we were able to appreciate Nash’s statement that his ‘process is part of the exhibition,’ beginning with Family Tree, (67-94), charting his creative trajectory across four large, framed drawings detailing his tree/wood related ideas right through to their manifestation. Kew’s also a fitting setting for Nash’s work as his thinking’s in synch with their mission to preserve as much of the world’s species of trees and plants as is humanly possible.

Ash Dome (1977) a group of ash trees planted that year, encouraged towards one another, is beautifully entrancing, as it’s resulted in a seemingly, dancing circle of trees, chronicled here through film and photos. It is just one of many long term growing projects Nash has originated in order to create ‘spaces,’ in this case, ‘a space for the 21st Century.’ It quickly becomes clear that Nash is an artist listening, as American nature lover/writer, Henry David Thoreau put it, ‘…to the beat of a different drummer.’ I’ve seen land art before: Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Serra, and others, but nothing quite as all-absorbing as this. Nash’ earth-etched drawings, and his prolific body of work, which includes sculptural installations, sculpture and plantings, and his individualistic way of interpreting it is inspiring.

An intriguing film in the gallery offers insight into the making of Cork Dome (2011), comprised from the cork lined bark of Portuguese trees, which Nash obtained at the time of their actual harvest. The idea of cutting cork from trees as a ‘harvest’ may seem odd, but after seeing the film, we revisited the aforementioned installation on the grounds with renewed interest. Nash’s is not untouchable art, but in a sense, sacred, by virtue of what it is made from and represents. Cork trees are eighty years old before their outer bark can be stripped, and there is a ten year wait before their cork can be harvested again.

A stone boulder Nash carved from the dead wood of a huge tree in 1977 becomes part of the artistic trajectory of the work itself, on film, as he tracks his boulder’s journey through river and stream over the course of many seasons and years, before it finally vanishes, presumably, into the sea, only to momentarily resurface in 2008 before disappearing. Human intervention was only needed when the boulder lodged itself beneath a small bridge. The film is surprisingly moving, as the ebb and flow is a metaphor for life. Nash was philosophical about its transience, saying, ‘It is not lost, it is where ever it is.’

Among the grouping on the grounds before the Temperate House,home to palms and other tropically grown trees and plants, Black Dome (2009), comprised of a number of charred and rounded, log like pieces of oak in graduated size, conjures up images of burnt moorings in the Thames after the Great Fire of London, a distant echo of the past perhaps. Volcanic rock also comes to mind when looking at this striking installation. As Nash said, ‘the material determines the process.’ The huge glass structure of the Temperate House itself reminds me of details I’d seen of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Not inappropriate, when you consider the age of some of the wrought iron trimmed benches inside, dated 1846.



Temperate House

Photo courtesy of Royal Bontanical Gardens, Kew



I wondered why Nash titled several of his pieces ‘dome’ of one sort or another, before recollecting that trees and their oxygenating work protect us from destroying our own atmosphere. Perhaps if we continue deforesting at the rapid pace we do now, we’ll all need domes to help us breathe….

Nash was quoted as saying ‘the exciting thing for me is to see my work in the jungle…to put them among plants, which is where they came from,’ so the tropical setting of the Temperate House with its plethora of plants, foliage and over-sized leafy fronds is the perfect perspective from which to view his art. In this setting, a partially charred, wood bared monolith group, Black and Red Dome (2006), near aptly named Coffin Trees is especially effective, its’ presence, somehow, linked to the trees and plants nearby.



Red and Black Dome 2006

Yew, partly charred

Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew



This raises a question of whether the wood Nash uses in his pieces (in addition to their shapes) has a direct correlation to its surroundings in this exhibition. From the railed upper level of the Temperate House, one is able to appreciate the serene interdependence of the thriving scene below, with its intertwining eco-systems. In the Neo-Tropical section of the House, we learn that one quarter of all plant and animal species on earth originate from the areas that zone incorporates – Central and South America. The world’s tallest indoor plant stands near – a Chilean Palm, a staggering seventeen meters tall. This statuesque tree was grown from a seed, planted in 1846! Standing tall not far from this is another Nash piece,

Crack and Warp Column (2010) a tower formed of intricately sliced and stacked slabs of lime wood, gives an initial impression of giant slabs of toast.  Its marvelous texture and distinctive construction draws many admiring onlookers. There are so many Nash sculptural pieces in the Temperate House that a list at the entrance is needed to inform us, though the free Kew map shows you where to find Nash’s art on the grounds.



Crack and Warp Column 2010


Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew



There are pieces here made from the wood of many types of trees as well as nature inspired bronze works as well. This naturalistic grouping of Nash works is crowned by toweringly graceful Throne, (1991) created from beech, which makes an impressive centre-point.



Throne 1991


Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew



Outside, Black Butt (2011), may be made of charred oak*, but its’ adjacent group of pieces are stunning examples of wood like bronze casting. A speckled hen struts round the base of the piece, in hope of finding a stray snack, seemingly, joining the curious throng of onlookers. Torso (2011) a bronze piece combining strength and grace, seems a cross between a tree and a human torso. We are wandering among a veritable grove of Nash sculptures on the vast grounds of Kew Gardens and relishing the experience!

*(former error, i.e. reference to Black Butt as 'bronze' due to info passed on by a misinformed Kew guide - see official video below review)



Black Butt 2009

Charred Oak

Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew



King and Queen II, another bronze abstraction, exudes regal presence, as Nash’s pair of warped figures seem to reign over all they survey.



King and Queen II (1997)


Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew



At the Wood Quarry, Nash’s resourcefulness is apparent, as we become aware of the large number of artworks he is able to make from just one tree, in this case, an expired English Oak, ‘in decline for the past five years’, which had, in its long life, been one of Kew’s oldest trees.  A helpful guide in the small building nearby, where an interesting film, wood samples and more, further enlighten us about Nash’s process and progress, informs us that the artist has been given access to five large trees which have come to the end of their natural lives at Kew, but has so far, worked only on the tall oak, from which he’s carved (with chainsaw and tools) a whimsical totem pole of sorts, comprised of a number of cups rather precariously balanced atop one another. It’s a relief as well as a pleasure to see such animated and imaginative, eco friendly art. Elsewhere in this outdoor workshop, a small ladder straddles two sides of a section of tree trunk, with wood joints, sans nails. Two upside down trees, their branches striding under them like legs, at first glance, remind me of cartoon trees from Disney’s Silly Symphonies, one of his earliest animations. Trees have always been a source of fascination to creative people working in all mediums. This inventive art, so in line with Nash and his trees’ natural flow, is all in sight of Kew Garden’s iconic Pagoda! When you visit Kew Gardens, from now through September, you may be lucky enough to see Nash at work in the Wood Quarry. There are also daily walking tours of Nash’s sculptures.



David Nash's Wood Quarry at Kew Gardens

Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew



After visiting the expanded Xstrata Treetop Walkway, and enjoying the marvelous views it affords those hearty enough to climb its stairs, in all directions, we felt our day was at last, complete. We’d arrived at Kew with plenty of time to explore the art and grounds, but we resolved to get there even earlier next time.



The Xstrata Treetop Walkway

Photo by James Morely



Reluctantly retracing our steps, past one colourful, well tended flowerbed after another, in the direction of Victoria Gate where we came in, along the way, we stop to pick up a ‘Lucky Sunrise’ Lantana plant in the Garden’s nursery, amid a host of robust choices. In our last moments at Kew, we pause and sit contentedly by the lake in front of the majestic Palm House, soaking up some much needed sun-rays, admiring the beautiful vistas all around us. We will definitely be coming back again, when the David Nash pavilion opens in October…


Palm House

Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew





David Nash in his Wood Quarry at Kew Gardens


Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew 
* Kew video on Black Butt

Visitor information: 020 8332 5655 or

For tickets to Kew Gardens and David Nash’s exhibition see:

There is a fascinating video here on Nash’s process and the Wood Gallery
Adults £14.50, Concessions £12.50, Children FREE
Opening times here:

Closest underground station: Kew Gardens (Zone 3)


Victoria Gate, Summer

Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

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