Solid, strong, and enduring, the heroic oak spreads expansively in all directions, steadily growing an imperial command of the landscape. All the more sublime, then, when such a tree is struck by lightning. Stark in its isolation and bearing the deep scars of violence, the “blasted oak” evokes the melancholy of blighted glory and death. In Western literature since Virgil, the thunder-rent quercus emblematises the decline of the imperial conqueror. John Dryden’s Antony, for instance, imagines himself “stretch’d . . . beneath some blasted oak,” liberated from his duty to Rome and free suffer the pyrotechnics of his love affair with Cleopatra.
These sketches by JMW Turner and others implicitly refer to this imaginative history of the imperial oak. Visually recalling the crooked path of the lightning bolt, the splintered contours of the remnant trees capture the aftermath of overriding passion and shattered ambition. Grim and sparse, these Romantic depictions of the blasted oak emphasise loss and trauma as well as the naked beauty of ruin.
For a closer look, all three artworks above can be viewed by appointment at the Tate Britain’s Prints and Drawings Rooms.