40 Sycamore Keys

Alice_Fox_Hackfall_sycamore_keyAs I mentioned a couple of posts back, I spent my 40th birthday exploring the wonderful Hackfall woods in North Yorkshire. This special place is a historic landscape garden, which appears wild but has been manipulated by the hand of man for over 400 years. Now managed by The Woodland Trust and The Hackfall Trust, it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

For two whole days, from sunrise to beyond moonrise, we drank every detail of the woodland in. Walking every path, treading each 18th century step, discovering all the carefully planned vistas and more. From our precariously perched hideaway we looked down onto the steeply sloping valley, lined with a tapestry of trees recently exposed as their winter selves. The luminous larch held the light and glowed from it’s soon-to-drop yellowing needles. Walking amongst the trees we came upon the recumbent trunk of a fallen tree that had become home to a whole community of plant species: a garden where fairies might have partied, littering the populated surface of the trunk with their tattered wings. The death of majestic birds was exposed before us on the path: blood spilled and feathers strewn. The naked pink of sycamore stems caught our attention. We marvelled at hazel branches holding droplets to sparkle in the last light as the moon rose behind silhouetted boughs. And through it all the rushing river wound its noisy way; energetic always. Water is a constant in this wood: dripping, rushing, hanging, pooling, reflecting.


Those tattered fairy wings I found were sycamore keys in various states of delicate decay. I collected a few, popping them into a little jar to study later. Back in my studio I emptied out the jar and laid out the keys. Counting them I found that I had collected exactly 40. I set out to draw each one, studying the detail of their veined surface and aiming to capture something of their fragility.


The drawings are made in walnut ink on watercolour postcards. The ink was made from walnut husks gathered in the Yorkshire garden of a friend. The first few of the series are now posted in my shop and a donation will be made to The Woodland Trust from the sale of each drawing. My drawings are ongoing, a few a week until all 40 are made. I’ll let you know how I get on.


25 thoughts on “40 Sycamore Keys

  1. I wish that I had been with you wondering through the woods. So often I pick interesting items of nature off the ground and carry them home to treasure and look at again and again. I am inspired by you to draw them. You are such a beautiful soul.

  2. These are adorable and very well studied. Sycamore wings are favourites of mine as well but apart from collecting and drying them I’ve not done anything arty with them yet. Look forward to seeing them all.

    • Thank you Tricia. What I love about these ones in particular is the fact that they are partly broken down, some more than others, so there is even more variation in their detail than when first off the tree.

  3. I love how you find the small things around you and turn them into artwork that has intimacy and authenticity. And that pic has luscious shapes and colors. It could be the basis of an artwork all on its own.

  4. Oh, I thought, those are polly noses. At least that’s what we called them when I was growing up in the suburbs of New York City. I remember opening them up, prying out the seeds, and then sticking them on the bridge of my nose. Why we did this as kids I have no clue. A bit of google searching revealed polly nose (var. polynose) to be a bit of Brooklyn slang. And aparently maple keys (aka samaras) are edible. Who knew?

    So thank you for triggering this bit of nostalgic research. I very much like the idea of drawing each key … the way you have captured their individuality is amazing.

  5. Beautiful Alice , a wonderful inspiration and the fact that you picked up 40 is amazing …happy 40th all year through

  6. How exquisite your drawings are. How difficult is it to make ink from walnut casings. I feel a bit inspired to have a try.

  7. A beautiful post in every way – your words, the imagery that they convey, the wings themselves, and your drawings of them. Inspiring as always -thank you!

  8. Collected some lovely green sycamore seeds in 2010 and they are still green! they are in a collage with some red acer leaves with a favourite poem Leaves of Grass ..The Loving day, the morning sun, the friend I’m happy with…Enjoy exploring your wings, to me they have a moth like quality.

  9. Pingback: more keys | alice fox

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