When Cambridge University Botanic Garden’s iconic tree toppled over in strong winds, it offered artist Nabil Ali the chance to discover its hidden colour – by turning it into ink. He has named the ink ‘Newton’s Gold’. The ink will be used in an art installation called ‘The Tree That Once Was’, consisting of 68 apples, to mark the age of the tree, which will be revealed this Sunday at Apple Day.
Newton’s Apple Tree growing in Cambridge University Botanic Garden (CUBG) until February 2022, was a direct descendant of an apple tree in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, which is said to have inspired Sir Isaac Newton to formulate his theory of gravity by watching the fall of an apple from the tree in the 1660s.
After the Cambridge tree was sadly blown down by Storm Eunice in 2022, it was stored away ready for creative ideas with what to do with the timber. A year later, it was spotted by Nabil Ali, Artist-in-Residence at CUBG, who has now managed to extract ink from its bark.
“To our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has discovered the colours hidden with a descendent of Newton’s inspiring tree,” said Ali. “I thought I’d end up with black pigment but it’s a dark golden yellow. I’m calling it ‘Newton’s Gold’.”
During his 14-month residency, Ali will be exploring the Garden in a way that’s never been done before – discovering new colourants made from plants for his project ‘DYE – nature, myth and climate’. He will be sharing the results with visitors, researchers and artists through events, performances and a colour catalogue database linked to the Garden’s Living Collections Portal.
To make the ink, Ali peeled away some of the bark, then soaked it for a day and a half in his workshop in CUBG before grinding it, boiling it to release the tannin and adding alum.
He’s used the new ink to create an apple installation consisting of 68 apples, to mark the age of the tree before it was blown down. The apples are replicas of a cast made from an apple taken from the tree in 2016 and the installation will be on display for the first time at Apple Day in the Botanic Garden on 22 October.
Turning Newton's Apple Tree into Gold
We’re so pleased that Nabil has managed to sample its colour in this way. His work is an inspiring way of engaging people in the natural world through art and performance and we look forward to seeing how Newton’s Gold will be used!”
Ali hopes that this will encourage people to explore their own gardens by making dyes from plants and engage with nature in a new way, through the joy of discovering its unseen colours.
“The natural world is more than an inspiration for my work, it’s an indelible part of it. Organic elements and their place are absorbed into my installations, paintings and sculptures,” he said.
“The Botanic Garden’s illustrious history, its role in protecting the world’s biodiversity at a time of climate crisis, and its beauty in the changing seasons will help shape the outputs of the project.”
Speaking about the significance of “Newton’s Apple Tree”, CUBG Curator Sam Brockington says: “We recently had the genome of our tree sequenced by the Darwin Tree of Life project. From this analysis, our tree seems identical to other descendants, and so we can say with confidence that ours is a direct clone of the original tree in Grantham, which also fell in a gale in the 19th century.”
In anticipation of the demise of their tree, the team at CUBG had been grafting the tree over the past three years and now have relatives of Newton’s apple tree in their reserves. These will be planted in a different part of the Garden, to avoid the honey fungus that probably was responsible for the tree weakening and dying before falling in the storm.
Brockington adds: “The tree was held in great affection by staff and visitors to the Garden and we’ve been hoping for innovative and creative uses of the timber. We’re so pleased that Nabil has managed to sample its colour in this way. His work is an inspiring way of engaging people in the natural world through art and performance and we look forward to seeing how Newton’s Gold will be used!”
Tickets are now available for Apple Day in the Botanic Garden on 22 October. Nabil Ali’s art installation ‘The Tree That Once Was” will be on display on the site where Newton’s Apple Tree stood until the end of November.