Focus on ink: Artist makes ink from a clone of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree

02 November 2023

Nabil Ali, the artist-in-residence at Cambridge University‘s Botanic Garden, has made ink from a clone of Newton’s apple tree, which fell during Storm Eunice last year (pictured)Processing bark from the tree with medieval techniques, Ali created a golden-yellow ink which he calls ‘Newton’s Gold’.

The ink will be used to create an illustration of 68 apples – one for each year the tree stood before it fell.

The fallen tree was a genetically identical clone of the very tree under which Sir Isaac Newton was supposedly inspired to formulate his theory of gravity while watching an apple fall in the 1660s. Newton’s original tree stood in his childhood home of Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire from the 1650s until sometime around 1820, when it fell in a thunderstorm. However, cuttings had been taken from the still-living tree, meaning genetically identical clones could be grown all around the world.

The clone in Cambridge was planted in 1954, and fell in February 2022. Luckily, the gardeners at the Botanic Garden had already made several clones at the time. After it fell, the tree’s wood was kept safely in storage, awaiting a creative way of putting it to good use.

A year later, Mr Ali had the idea to create an ink from the bark and use it to immortalise the beloved tree. To make the ink, he peeled away some of the bark and soaked it for a day and a half in his workshop before grinding it, boiling it to release the tannin and adding the chemical compound alum.

Mr Ali’s project, ‘DYE- nature, myth and, climate’, explores 14th to 16th century methods of creating natural dyes from plants. Medieval manuscripts describe ancient processes of boiling plants in water, wine, or vinegar before adding a mordant – a substance that helps bond the dye – which can make the colour brighter, deeper, or duller. Mr Ali has already successfully made a red and purple dye from the Botanic Garden’s poppies by following a 15th century German-Venetian recipe.

‘To our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has discovered the colours hidden with a descendent of Newton’s inspiring tree,’ Mr Ali said. “I thought I’d end up with black pigment but it’s a dark golden yellow. I’m calling it ‘Newton’s Gold’.”


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Dr Samuel Brockington, curator of Cambridge University’s Botanic Garden, said the genome of the Cambridge tree was 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,” he said.

“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!”

In anticipation of the demise of the tree, the team has also been grafting the tree over the past three years and now has 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 responsible for the tree weakening and dying before falling in the storm.


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