I DREW this group of tree ferns from plants in the fern house at Kew Gardens. It was a frosty winter weekend and the prospect of drawing in the shelter of a glasshouse appealed to me. Unfortunately when I got there the fern houses were closed for maintenance, so I had to stand on the frozen turf outside and draw this tropical scene through the window.
This was back in the winter of 1976-77 and I was gathering visual reference for my first book, A Sketchbook of the Natural History of the Country Round Wakefield, for a fold-out diorama of the coal forests which covered much of Britain 300 million years ago. The giant club-mosses and giant horsetails are long gone but modern tree ferns are almost identical in appearance to the tree ferns and ‘seed ferns’ (an unrelated but very similar looking group of plants) that grew in these primeval forests.
I felt that drawing from real plants would give a touch of believability to the drawing, a kind of ‘everyday’ look which can be difficult to achieve when you’re reconstructing an exotic landscape.
Today, I’ve been revisiting that landscape, part of my past as well as part of the distant past of our planet, as I’ve been asked to prepare a coloured version (coloured in Photoshop that is) for an information board for a country park on the site of a former colliery. The stored energy in the coal comes from sunlight that fell on these long vanished forests 300 million years ago.