The subtitle to my November Leaves painting is ‘Autumn in the Suburbs’. I spent a few years walking a dog at the back of what has once been a new-build estate. Even though the houses are forty years old, they manage to look gauche and out of place. Trees were planted in an attempt to fashion pleasant surroundings. Unfortunately, the residents think Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) is a good hedging plant. It is a native of regions bordering the Black Sea. People like it because it’s evergreen and it’s tough, but I think it is a hideous plant. It is highly toxic – the Roman emperor Nero poisoned the wells of his enemies with a distillate of Cherry Laurel. How much better if everyone were to plant hedges that replace grubbed up hedgerows? Hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel are all of much greater benefit to wildlife and more attractive as well.
Cherry Laurel is easy to grow and does not object to being clipped. This convenience is part of the hubris of our modern age, the (mostly) wealthy householders of Surrey don’t want to spend time on their environment. The poisonous hedge keeps passers-by from looking through windows, and that is final. Another consequence is that the ground becomes slippery in winter because the leaves do not break down quickly. This also affects the quality of the humus. What would be a fine tilth derived from native trees (oak, beech, ash), with the addition of sweet chestnut (introduced by the Romans), is rendered useless by the laurel leaves.
November leaves was a long paint – maybe three months on and off. I drew squares on the canvas so as not to lose track of where I was. Towards the end of the work, I added a surprise. See if you can find it!