William Palmer Robins (1882-1959) was an English artist from Southwark and the son of the naturalist William Benjamin Roberts. As a child Robins’ father would take him for walks through the country to sketch the landscape and instilled in him a lifelong appreciation for outdoor environments. It is estimated that Robins produced 270 etchings over his lifetime. The Old Willow was created in 1913 when Robins was living at Knebworth, Hertfortshire. He would visit the nearby forest and etch from direct observation onto already prepared plates.
The Baillieu Library Print Collection holds different states of this engraving, which reveals a rare glimpse into Robins’ working methods, as he would often destroy the work he was dissatisfied with. Despite this, many trials were collected by Harold J. L. Wright who met Robins through the New England Art Club in 1910 and is credited as having influenced Robins to change from aquatint to etching.
The willow depicted reveals signs of age, the trunk bends dramatically as a scar runs down its right side where it has been split in half. The entangled clumps of branches display growth which is similar in habitat to coppicing (pruning the tree from ground level) or pollarding (pruning it higher up) techniques of gardening. This method is usually undertaken deliberately to promote straight trunk growth with regular stems that could be harvested for basket making or fence building. However, the theatrical lean of this tree suggests it was damaged by a violent storm. This powerful act of nature is contrasted against the silhouetted figure in a boat who is overshadowed by the towering tree, with its rugged clumps of growth. The image speaks of the vastness of this sublime ecology.