Drawn to the Forest 1999

Thirty artists visited the forest in four groups over a twelve-month period beginning in the spring of 1999. The author Robert Burton joined the groups and the book Drawn to the Forest is their pictorial and written record. The following is a revision of the book’s introduction.

…A chance conversation I had with Jonathan Spencer, the ecologist for the Forestry Commission, was the genesis of the SWLA New Forest project. We knew each other and met occasionally, and at one particular social gathering he talked enthusiastically again about the forest’s extraordinary biodiversity and how there was so much more to the area than picnic sites and ponies. He continued with anecdotes about beetles and birds, about the relationship between one particular fungi and the droppings of ponies. There were suggestions of places well worth visiting far from the usual tracks and trails, and he insisted I went down to see it and he would give me a guided tour…

…In turn he listened to me explaining how in recent years the SWLA had been developing projects in support of other conservation organisations. For example, a small group had recently gathered at the RSPB Minsmere reserve in Suffolk for a week and worked together to create an illustrated, limited edition handmade book on the different habitats within the reserve. I told Jonathan about how the society had artist members working in many different media – relief and screen printmaking, sculpting in bronze, wood and steel, and artists using oils, pastels and charcoal – all of them expressing their passion for the way they see the natural world. That creative energy was variously succeeding in going beyond species and habitat specifics to reveal a fundamental understanding of wildlife and its place in the environment.

Then we talked about how the New Forest could be the focus for an extremely exciting art project with small groups of artists working at different times of the year. Their work would create a descriptive and interpretive portrait of the wildlife and landscape, and of the individuals and communities who have a stake in the forest – farmers, commoners, forestry workers and others. Through a series of concluding exhibitions and a book that told the story large numbers of people would be able to see the forest through different eyes and in doing so enhance their experience and understanding of it.

With the equally enthusiastic support of Donald Thompson, Deputy Surveyor of the Forestry Commission, a fully costed project plan was quickly circulated and the necessary funding to promote it, transport and accommodate the artists and support the final exhibitions was soon in place. The first group of artists visited the New Forest in May 1999.

The SWLA was extremely to Donald for backing the project so enthusiastically and for allowing Forestry Commission staff to spend time helping the artists pursue their ideas. Without Jonathan Spencer’s enthusiasm the project would not have happened, and Recreation Manager Mike Seddon kept it on track. Forest Ranger Paul Hibberd and his colleagues organised a series of public awareness and educational events, and Chief Keeper Martin Noble and his team willingly shared their enthusiasm and freely unlocked the riches of the Forest.