Dangers of Imposing Words—Novelty more Common than Originality—An Unwholesome Kind of "Originality."
I told you that I should have something to say about originality. Almost every beginner has some vague impression that his first duty should be to aim at originality. He hears eulogiums passed upon the individuality of some one or other, and tries hard to invent new forms of expression or peculiarities of style, only resulting, in most cases, in new forms of ugliness, which it seems is the only possibility under such conscious efforts after novelty. The fact is that it takes many generations of ardent minds to accomplish what at first each thinks himself capable of doing alone. True originality has somewhat the quality of good wine, which becomes more delightful as time mellows its flavor and imparts to it the aroma which comes of long repose; like the new wine, too, originality should shyly hide itself in dark places until maturity warrants its appearance in the light of day. That kind of originality which is strikingly new does not always stand the test of time, and should be regarded with cautious skepticism until it has proved itself to be more than the passing fashion or novelty of a season. There is a kind of sham art very conspicuous at the present time, which was at quite a recent date popularly believed to be very original. It seems to have arisen out of some such impatient craving for novelty, and it has been encouraged by an easy-going kind of suburban refinement, which neither knows nor cares very much what really goes to the making of a work of art. This new art has filled our shops and exhibitions with an invertebrate kind of ornament, which certainly has the doubtful merit of "never having been seen before." It has evidently taken its inspiration from the trailing and supine forms of floating seaweed, and revels in the expression of such boneless structure. By way of variety it presents us with a kind of symbolic tree, remarkable for more than archaic flatness and rigidity. Now, this kind of "originality" is not only absolutely valueless, but exceedingly harmful; its only merit is that, like its ideal seaweed, it has no backbone of its own, and we may hope that it will soon betake itself to its natural home, the slimy bottom of the ocean of oblivion.
Meantime, the only thing we are absolutely sure of in connection with that much-abused word "originality" is this, that no gift, original or otherwise, can be developed without steady and continuous practise with the tools of your craft.
Exercise in Background Pattern—Care as to Stability—Drilling and Sawing out the Spaces—Some Uses for Pierced Patterns.
The present exercises may be described as a kind of carved open fretwork—that is to say, the ground is entirely cut away, leaving the pattern standing free. This will form an excellent piece of discipline with regard to the design of background forms, because in such work as this, those forms assert themselves in a very marked manner; if they are in any way found to be conspicuously unequal in size or are awkwardly designed as to shape, the whole effect of the work is spoiled.
For your first effort make a design based upon No. 24, and please to observe these rules in its construction. The main or leading lines of the pattern are to run as much as possible without crossing each other. The holes are to be fairly equal in size, or rather in area, as they need not be at all like each other in shape. The amount of wood left standing to be of a width averaging never less than half the length of the average-sized hole. This is necessary for securing sufficient strength of material in the cross-grained pieces, which would be liable to split if made too long and narrow. The pattern should be formal in character, not necessarily symmetrical, but it should be well balanced. You may have one part of your design composed of large holes and another of small ones, provided the change is part of a definite design, as in Fig. 25. You may even leave the wood in some parts forming a solid background, or you may treat it as a separate piece of simple carving on the solid, as in Fig. 26, being careful to execute it in a consistently simple manner, as in this kind of work much change of manner in execution is inadvisable, although, at the same time, it is open to any amount of variety in design of outline and combination of contrasts.
Take a piece of pine about 3 or 4 ft. long and 7 or 9 ins. wide by 3/4 in. thick. Trace on your pattern and drill circular holes in the middle of each space to be cut through. Then take a keyhole saw, and remove the wood by sawing round the space close to the blue line, taking care not to cut through it in any place. The saw must be held very truly upright in order to cut the sides of the spaces at right angles to the face of the wood. Now carve the pattern on the surface in whatever manner you have designed—in grooves suggesting the articulation of the leaves, in short grooves which may pass for additional leaves, or in a dozen ways which practise may help you to invent.
The wood should be held tightly down to the bench in all its parts, or, at least, in those being operated upon, as it may, if unsupported, crack across some of the narrow parts. The sides of all the holes must be carved out clean to remove the rough saw marks. This can be done partly by gouges, or still better, the wood may be held up on its edge and the holes cut round with a sharp penknife where the grain allows it. Now turn the work over on its face and carve bevels round each of the holes. This reduces the apparent thickness of wood, and adds to the effect of delicacy in the pattern.
This work may be used for the cresting of some large piece of furniture, or may be adapted to fill screens or partitions, stair newels, and balusters, or it may be used as a cornice decoration in the manner suggested by No. 26, where the pierced work can be backed by a hollow cornice which it fills and enriches.
In our next exercise we shall try our hands upon a piece of hardwood for a change—meantime do one or two of these fret patterns by way of disciplinary exercise in outline forms.
Carvings can not be Independent Ornaments—Carving Impossible on Commercial Productions—The Amateur Joiner—Corner Cupboards—Introduction of Foliage Definite in Form, and Simple in Character—Methods of Carving Grapes.
We now come to the question, what are we going to do with all the pieces of carving which we propose to undertake.
There is no more inexorable law relating to the use of wood-carving than the one which insists upon some kind of passport for its introduction, wherever it appears. It must come in good company, and be properly introduced. The slightest and most distant connection with a recognized sponsor is often sufficient, but it will not be received alone. We do not make carvings to hang on a wall and be admired altogether on their own account. They must decorate some object. A church screen, a font, a piece of furniture, or even the handle of a knife. It is not always an easy matter to find suitable objects upon which to exercise our wood-carving talents. Our furniture is all made now in a wholesale manner which permits of no interference with its construction, while at the same time, if we wish to put any carving upon it, it is absolutely essential that both construction and decoration should be considered together.
A very modest beginning may be made in adapting ornament to a useful article, by carving the surface of a bread plate. These are usually made of some hard wood, such as sycamore. They may be made of oak, but sycamore has the advantage in its lighter color, which is more likely to be kept clean. Two suggestions are given in Figs. 27 and 28 for carving appropriate to this purpose. The essentials are, that there should be a well-defined pattern simple in construction, and as effective as possible with little labor; that there should be little or no rounding of surface, the design consisting of gouge cuts and incisions arranged to express the pattern. The incisions may form a regular sunk ground, but it should not be deep, or it will not be easily kept clean. Then, as in cutting bread the knife comes in contact with the surface, no delicate work is advisable; a large treatment with broad surfaces, and some plain spaces left to protect the carved work, is likely to prove satisfactory in every way. A piece of sycamore should be procured, ready for carving; this may be got from a wood-turner, but it will be as well to give him a drawing, on which is shown the section of edge and the position of all turned lines required for confining the carving. If the plate is to be of any shape other than circular, then it must be neatly made by a joiner, unless you can shape it yourself.
Many of you are, I have no doubt, handy joiners, and may with a little help put together some slight pieces of furniture to serve at least as an excuse for the introduction of your carving. Here are some suggestions for corner cupboards, chosen as giving the largest area for carved surface with the minimum of expense in construction. The material should be oak—English if possible, or it may be Italian walnut. The doors of Figs. 40 and 41 are in three narrow boards with shallow beads at the joints, those of the others are each made of a single board, and should be 1/2 in. to 5/8 in. thick, the doors may be about 2 ft. 6 ins. high, each having two ledges about 3 ins. wide, screwed on behind top and bottom to keep them from twisting. All moldings, beads, etc., are to be carved by hand, no planes being used. Having traced the lines of your design upon the board, you may begin, if there are moldings as in Fig. 32, by using a joiner's marking gage to groove out the deepest parts of the parallel lines in the moldings along the edges, doing the same to the curved ones with a V tool or Veiner. Then form the moldings with your chisels or gouges. Keep them very flat in section as in Fig. 29. The fret patterns on Figs. 32, 35, and 36, where not pierced, should also be done in low relief, not more than 1/8 in. deep, and the sides of the bands beveled as in section a, Fig 30. The widths of these bands ought not to be less than 1/2 in., and look better if they are wider. Very narrow bands have a better appearance, if, instead of being cut straight down, they are hollowed at sides like b in Fig. 30.
Fig. 31 is a detail of a kind of gouge work which you must all know very well. One perpendicular cut of a gouge driven in with the mallet, and one side cut, should form one of these crescent or thimble-shaped holes. They should not be too deep in proportion to their size. Their combinations may be varied to a great extent. Two or three common ones are shown in the illustration. This form of ornament was in all likelihood invented by some ingenious carpenter with a turn for art and a limited stock of carving tools. His humble contribution to the resources of the carver's art has received its due share of the flattery which is implied by imitation. In all these patterns it is well to remember that the flat surface of the board left between the cuts is really the important thing to consider, as all variety is obtained by disposing the holes in such a way as to produce the pattern required by means of their outlines on the plain surface. Thus waved lines are produced as in Fig. 31, and little niches like mimic architecture as in Fig. 34, by the addition of the triangular-shaped holes at the top, and the splayed sills at the bottom. (It is obvious that an arrangement like the latter should never be turned upside down.) If this attention to the surface pattern is neglected the holes are apt to become mere confused and meaningless spots.
In small pieces of furniture like these, which are made of comparatively thin wood, the carving need not have much depth, say the ground is sunk 1/4 in. at the deepest. As oak is more tenacious than pine, you will find greater freedom in working it, although it is so much harder to cut. You may find it necessary to use the mallet for the greater part of the blocking out, but it need not be much used in finishing. A series of short strokes driven by gentle taps of the mallet will often make a better curve than if the same is attempted without its aid.
It will be well now to procure the remainder of the set of twenty-four tools if you have not already got them, as they will be required for the foliage we are about to attempt. The deep gouges are especially useful: having two different sweeps on each tool, they adapt themselves to hollows which change in section as they advance.
Fig. 32 contains very little foliage, such as there is being disposed in small diamond-shaped spaces, sunk in the face of the doors, and a small piece on the bracket below. All this work should be of a very simple character, definite in form and broad in treatment.
Fig. 33 is more elaborate, but on much the same lines of design varied by having a larger space filled with groups of leaves. Fig. 34 gives the carving to a larger scale; in it the oak-leaves are shown with raised veins in the center, the others being merely indicated by the gouge hollows. There is some attempt in this at a more natural mode of treating the foliage. While such work is being carved, it is well to look now and then at the natural forms themselves (oak and laurel in this case) in order to note their characteristic features, and as a wholesome check on the dangers of mannerism.
It is a general axiom founded upon the evidence of past work, and a respect for the laws of construction in the carpenter's department, that when foliage appears in panels divided by plain spaces, it should never be made to look as if it grew from one panel into the other, with the suggestion of boughs passing behind the solid parts. This is a characteristic of Japanese work, and may, perhaps, be admirable when used in delicate painted decorations on a screen or other light furniture, but in carvings it disturbs the effect of solidity in the material, and serves no purpose which can not be attained in a much better way.
Expedients have been invented to overcome the difficulty of making a fresh start in each panel, one of which is shown in Fig. 34, where the beginning of the bough is hidden under a leaf. It is presumable that the bough may go on behind the uncarved portions of the board to reappear in another place, but we need not insist upon the fancy, which loses all its power when attention is called to it, like riddles when the answer is known.
In Fig. 35, like the last, the treatment is somewhat realistic. This is shown to a larger scale in Fig. 38. Nevertheless, it has all been "arranged" to fit its allotted space, and all accidental elements eliminated; such, for instance, as leaves disappearing in violent perspective, or even turned sidewise, and all minute details which would not be likely to show conspicuously if carved in wood. In Fig. 39, (a) is an outline of a group of vine-leaves taken from nature, as it appeared, and in which state it is quite unfitted for carving, on account of its complicated perspective and want of definite outline; Fig. 39 (b) is a detail also copied from nature, but which might stand without alteration provided it formed part of a work delicate enough to note such close elaboration in so small a space. This, of course, would entirely depend upon the purpose for which the carving was intended, and whether it was meant for distant view or close inspection. As there is arrangement necessary in forming the outline, so there is just as much required in designing the articulation of the surfaces of the leaves, which should be so treated that their hollows fall into a semblance of some kind of pattern. Fig. 36 is a more formal design, or, to use a very much abused word, more "conventional," in which such leafage as there is only serves the purpose of ornamental points, marking the divisions of the general design. The gouge work upon the leaves should be of the simplest description, but strict attention is necessary in drawing the grooves, so that their forms may be clear and emphatic, leaving no doubt as to the pattern intended. Designs of this kind have no interest whatever except as pieces of patterned work, to which end every other consideration should be sacrificed. It must not be cut too deep—say 1/4 in. at the deepest—and the sides of the panels should be very gently hollowed out with a flattish sweep (see section on Fig. 37) in order to avoid any appearance of actual construction in what more or less imitates the stiles and rails of a door. Fig. 37 shows a portion of the leafage to a larger scale, and also a plan explaining the construction of all these cupboards.
Fig. 40 is designed upon the barest suggestion of natural foliage, the wavy stem being quite flat, and running out flush into the flat margins at the sides, connecting them together. The leaves in this case should be carved, leaving the veins standing solid; grooved veins would have a meager look upon such rudimentary leaves. Of course a more natural treatment may be given to this kind of design, but in that case it would require to be carried all over the door, and replace the formally ornamental center panel. The pierced pattern in cresting should be done as already described for Fig. 24.
Fig. 41 is a variant on the last design. In this case a little more play of surface is attempted, making a point of carving the side lobes of the leaves into little rounded masses which will reflect points of light. This is shown better on Fig. 42.
In carving foliage like that of the vine, where small dark holes or eyes occur, enough wood should be left round them to form deep dark little pits. They are very valuable as points of shadow. In doing this, cut the rim all round with a very slight bevel as in section, Fig. 43. Whenever leaves run out to a fine edge they also should have a small bevel like this in order to avoid an appearance of weakness which acute edges always present. As a general rule leave as much wood as possible about the edges of leaves as you want shadow from them—dipping them only where you are sure the variety will be effective. In the execution of bunches of rounded forms like grapes there is no special mechanical expedient for doing them quickly and easily; each must be cut out separately, and carved with whatever tools come handiest to their shape and size. It is a good way to begin by cutting triangular holes between the grapes with the point of a small chisel (see Fig. 44), after which the rough shapes left may gradually be formed into ovals. When the work is very simple in character, and does not require a realistic treatment, the grapes may be done in a more methodical way, as in Fig. 45. First cut grooves across both ways with a V tool, dividing the grapes as at a a, then with a gouge turned hollow down round each line of grapes into rolls as at b b. Do this both ways, and afterward finish the form as best you can.
Old Work Best Seen in its Original Place—Museums to be Approached with Caution—Methodical Memoranda—Some Examples—Assimilation of Ideas Better than Making Exact Copies.
In holiday time, and as other opportunity arises, be sure to visit some old building, be it church or mansion. In this way you will make acquaintance with many a fine specimen of old work which will set your fancy moving. In the one there may be a carved choir-screen or bench ends, in the other a fireplace or table. The first sight of such things in the places and among the surroundings for which they were designed, is always an eventful moment in the training of a carver, because the element of surprise acts like a tonic to the mind by arousing its emulative instincts. It is by seeing such things in their proper home and associations that the best lessons are learned. One sees in that way, for instance, why the tool marks left by the old carvers on their work look more effective than smoothly perfect surfaces, when associated with the rough timbers of the roof, or the uneven surface of the plastered wall. One sees, too, the effect of time and friction in the polished surfaces of bench ends, rubbed and dusted by countless hands until they have become smooth to the eye and touch, and a mental note is made to avoid sharp or spiky work in anything that is likely to be within reach of the fingers. In this way a certain balance is given to the judgment in proportioning to each piece of work its due share of labor, and we come away with a fixed determination to pay more attention in future to breadth of design and economy of actual carving, a problem which no carver finds easy, but which must be faced if wasted work is not to be his only reward.
In museums, too, we shall find many useful lessons, although there we see things huddled together in a distracting fashion which demands great wariness of selection. The great point to be observed in making our notes for future reference is, that each sketch should contain some memorandum of a special quality, the one which attracted us at the time of making it. One may be made for sake of a general arrangement, another to remind us of some striking piece of detail or peculiarity of execution. The drawings need not be elaborate or labored, provided they make clear the points they were intended to record. Thus Fig. 46 is a sketch which is meant as a memorandum of a lively representation of birds, taken from an old Miserere seat. Fig. 47 was done for sake of the rich effect of an inscription on the plain side of a beam, and also for the peculiar and interesting section to which the beam had been cut. Fig. 48, again, for sake of the arrangement of the little panels on a plain surface, and the sense of fitness and proportion which prompted the carver to dispose his work in that fashion, by which he has enriched the whole surface at little cost of labor, and by contrast enhanced the value of the little strips and diamonds of carved work, otherwise of no particular interest. Figs. 49 and 50 are two sketches of Icelandic carved boxes. Fig. 49 was drawn as an example of the rich effect which that kind of engraved work may have, and of the use which it makes of closely packed letters in the inscription. The pattern is, of course, a traditional Norse one, although the carving is comparatively modern. The points to be noted in the other box were its quaint and simple construction, the use of the letters as decoration, more especially the unpremeditated manner in which they have been grouped, the four letters below making a short line which is eked out by a rude bit of ornament. The letters are cut right through the wood, and are surrounded with an engraved line. Fig. 51 was noted on account of the way in which a very simple pierced ornament is made much of by repetition. The ornament is on a Portuguese bed, and this is only a detail of a small portion. The effect greatly depends upon the quantity, but in this case that is a point which is easily remembered without drawing more of it than is shown. The fact that this work is associated with richly turned balusters is, however, noticed in the sketch, as that might easily be forgotten. Figs. 47 to 51 are from South Kensington Museum.
Then we come to the sketch of a chair (Fig. 52), or combined table and chair. The richly carved back is pivoted, and forms the table top when lowered over the arms, upon which it rests. The points to be noted in this are, the general richness of effect, the contrast of wavy and rigid lines, and the happy way in which the architectural suggestion of arch and pillars has been translated into ornament. As this sketch was not made so much for the chair itself as for its enriched back, no measurements have been taken; otherwise chairs, as such, depend very much upon exact dimensions for their proportions. This chair is at Exning in Suffolk.
Now we shall suppose that you are going to make many such sketches both in museums and in country churches or houses. You will find some too elaborate for drawings in the time at your disposal, in which case you should obtain a photograph, if possible, making notes of any detail which you wish particularly to remember—such, for instance, as the carved chest shown in Plate I. The subject, St. George and the Dragon, is given with various incidents all in the one picture. This is a valuable and suggestive piece of work to have before you, as the manner in which the pictorial element has been managed is strikingly characteristic of the carver's methods, and well adapted to the conditions of a technique which has no other legitimate means of dealing with distant objects. The king and queen, looking out of the palace windows, are almost on the same scale as the figures in the foreground; the walls of the houses, roofs, etc., have apparently quite as much projection as the foreground rocks—distance is inferred rather than expressed. The very simple construction, too, is worth noting. It is practically composed of three boards, a wide one for the picture, and two narrower ones for ends and feet.
The object in making these sketches should be mainly to collect a variety of ideas which may brighten the mind when there is occasion to use its inventive faculties. Suggestive hints are wanted; rarely will it be possible, or wise, to repeat anything exactly as you see it. These sketches, if made with care, and from what Constable used to call "breeding subjects," will give your fancy a very necessary point of vantage, from which it may hazard flights of its own.
As much of our knowledge must necessarily be gained from museums, and as they now form such an important feature of educational machinery, I think it will be well to devote a word or two of special notice to the drawbacks which accompany their many advantages. This I propose to do in the following chapter.
False Impressions Fostered by Fragmentary Exhibits—Environment as Important as Handicraft—Works Viewed as Records of Character—Carvers the Historians of their Time.
A new world of commerce and machinery, having slain and forgotten a past race of artist craftsmen, makes clumsy atonement by sweeping together the fragments of their work and calling the collection a museum. From the four corners of the earth these relics have been gathered. Our hungry minds are bidden to make choice according to fancy, for here is variety of food! Here are opportunities, never before enjoyed by mortal, for an intellectual feast!—and of a kind which might be considered god-like, were it not for the suspicion of some gigantic joke. That out of all this huge mass of chaotic material we have not as yet been able to make for ourselves some living form of art, must indeed be to the gods a continual subject of merriment.
Museums of art are in no respect the unmixed blessings which they appear to be. They have, to be sure, all the advantages of handy reference; but at the same time, on account of the great diversity in the character of their exhibits, they tend to encourage the spread of a patchy kind of knowledge, far from being helpful to the arts in the interests of which they are established. It must be remembered that, in these collections, all specimens of architecture and architectural carving are invariably seen in false positions. All have been wrenched from their proper settings, and placed, more or less at random, in lights and relationships never contemplated by their designers. To the environment of a piece of architecture, and the position and surroundings of carved decorations, are due quite half of their interest as works of art. Deprive them of these associations, and little is left but fragmentary specimens of handicraft, more or less unintelligible in their lonely detachment, misleading to the eye, and dangerous as objects of imitation, in proportion to the dependence they once had upon those absent and unknown associations.
The educational purpose which these collections are intended to serve is liable to be construed into an unreasoning assumption that every specimen exhibited is equally worthy of admiration. How often the plodding student is to be seen carefully drawing and measuring work of the dullest imaginable quality, with no other apparent reason for his pathetically wasted industry!
It would be strange, indeed, if all in this vast record of past activity was of equal value; if merely to belong to the past was a sure warrant that such work was the best of its kind. Far from this being the case, it requires the constant use of a more or less trained and critical judgment to separate what is good from the indifferent or really bad in these collections, for all are usually present. There is inequality in artistic powers, in technical skill, and a distinction of yet greater importance, which lies in the significance the works bear as records of the inner life of their creators. Artists, carvers in particular, are the true scribes and historians of their times. Their works are, as it were, books—written in words of unconscious but fateful meaning. Some are filled with the noblest ideals, expressed in beautiful and serious language, while others contain nothing but sorry jests and stupidities.
As all the works of the past, whether good or bad, are the achievements of men differing but little from ourselves, save in the direction of their energies and in their outward surroundings, there is surely some clue to the secret of their success or failure, some light to be thrown by their experience upon our own dubious and questioning spirit.
What better could we look for in this respect than a little knowledge of the lives led by the carvers themselves, a mental picture of their environment, an acquired sense of the influence which this, that, or the other set of conditions must have imposed upon their work. With a little aid from history in forming our judgments, their works themselves will assist us—so faithful is the transcript of their witness—for, with more certainty than applies to handwriting, a fair guess may be made by inference from the work itself as to the general status and ideals of the workman. The striking analogy between its salient characteristics and the prevailing mood of that ever-changing spirit which seeks expression in the arts, is nowhere more marked than in the work of the carver.
STUDIES FROM NATURE—FOLIAGE
Medieval and Modern Choice of Form Compared—A Compromise Adopted—A List of Plant Forms of Adaptable Character.
It is high time now that we had some talk about the studies from nature which are to furnish you with subjects for your work. I shall at present deal only with studies of foliage, as that is what you have been practising, and I wish you to carry on your work and studies as much as possible on the same lines.
Between the few abstract forms, representing a general type of foliage, so dear to the heart of the medieval carver, and the unstinted variety of choice displayed in the works of Grinling Gibbons and his time, there is such a wide difference that surely it points to a corresponding disparity of aim. Although there is no doubt whatever that such a striking change of views must have had its origin in some deeper cause than that which is to be explained by artistic and technical development, yet I think that for our immediate purpose we shall find a sufficiently good lesson in comparing the visible results of the two methods. Broadly speaking, then, the medieval carver cared more for general effect than for possibilities of technique. He therefore chose only such natural forms as were amenable to his preconceived determination to make his work telling at a distance. He had no botanical leanings, and rejected as unfit every form which would not bend to his one purpose—that of decoration on a large scale—and which he aimed at making comprehensive at a glance, rather than calling for attention to its details. He invented patterns which he knew would assist in producing this result, and here he further handicapped his choice by limiting it to such forms as would repeat or vanish at regulated intervals, reflecting light or producing shadow just where it was wanted to emphasize his pattern.
The more modern carver, on the contrary, offered an all-embracing welcome to every form which presented itself to his notice. He rejected nothing which could by any possibility be carved. Nothing was too small, too thin, or too difficult for his wonderful dexterity with the carving tools. His chief end was elaboration of detail, and it was often carried to a point which ignored the fact that nearly all of it would become invisible when in position, or, if seen at all, would only appear in confused lumps and unintelligible masses.
Now, for many reasons, I think we had better take the medieval method as our model up to a point, and make a certain selection of material for our studies, based upon some relation to general effect, but not necessarily imitating a medieval austerity of rejection, which would be the merest affectation on our part. Upon these principles, and taking somewhat of a middle course, I shall here note a few types of foliage which I think may be useful to you in the work upon which you are engaged.
Leaf forms, with their appropriate flowers or fruit, afford the carver a very large proportion of his subject material. They serve him as principal subject, as bordering or background to figures of men or animals; they occur as mere detached spots, to break the monotony of spaces or lines; and in a thousand other ways give exercise to his invention.
As a general rule, those leaves with serrated, or deeply cleft and indented edges, lend themselves most readily to decorative treatment. Large, broad leaves, with unbroken surfaces, and triangular or rounded outlines, are less manageable. Those most commonly taken as models are:
The Vine, with its Grapes.—This was freely used by medieval carvers, at first for its symbolic significance, but afterward even more on account of its rare beauty of form. The play of light and shade on its vigorous foliage, the variety of its drawing in leaf, vine, and tendril, and the contrast afforded by its bunches of oval fruit, caused it to be accepted as a favorite subject for imitation in all kinds of carving. It lends itself kindly to all sorts of relief, either high or low, in almost any material. It is so recognizable, even in the rudest attempts at imitation, that its popularity is well deserved.
The hop-vine shares some of these qualities, though much less strongly marked in character.
The Acanthus.—This leaf was first adapted for the purpose of ornament by the workmen of classical Greece. The inspiration was one of the few which they took directly from nature's models. It was also freely used by medieval carvers, but with an insistence upon the flowing and rounded character of its surface forms; and again by the Renaissance artists, with a return to its classical character of fluted and formal strength of line. The graceful drawing of its elaborately articulated surface, and the extraordinary accentuation of its outline, provide an endless source of suggestion. It has been adapted in all manners, according to the fancy of the carver—sometimes long and drawn out, at others wide and spreading. Altogether it has been more thoroughly "generalized" than any other natural form.
The Oak, with its Acorns, appears in early medieval work, but without much attempt to represent its form with anything like individual character. In later work it has more justice done to its undoubted merits as a decorative feature by a clearer recognition of its beauty in clumps and masses. Fruit, other than the grape and a nondescript kind of berry, was seldom represented by medieval craftsmen; it formed, however, a marked feature in Renaissance ornament, where pomegranate, apple, fig, and melon were in constant requisition.
Flowers in general were very little used in early times, and then only in a highly abstract form corresponding to that of the foliage. The rose and lily were the two most frequently seen, but they seldom had more individuality about them than was sufficient to make them recognizable. During the Renaissance flowers were treated with much more regard to their inherent beauties, and were represented with great skill and power of imitation, although often carried beyond legitimate limits in this direction. When dealt with as ornaments, rather than botanical details, they form a rich source of suggestion to the carver, and offer a ready means of contrast with masses of foliage. The rose and lily are such conspicuous flowers that they should, in modern times, be used in a way consistent with our demands for individual character and likeness. They should be fairly well defined and easily recognizable. It is quite possible to treat these flowers in a very realistic way, without endangering their effect as decorative details: they have both such distinguished forms in flower and foliage.
Flowers should be chosen for their forms; color should not be allowed to deceive the eye in this respect, unless the color itself is suggestive of lines and contours.
Foliage should always be studied at its prime, never when it is dried and contorted in its forms.
Here is a short list of subjects, including those I have mentioned, all having a sufficiently pronounced character to make them valuable as stock in trade. Many more might be named, but these are chosen as being commonly familiar, and as being representative types of various forms.
For their Leaves and Fruit.—The grapevine, hop-vine, globe artichoke, tomato, apple, plum, pear, bramble, and strawberry.
For Fruit and Vine-like Growths (leafage too massive and smooth to be of much value without adaptation).—The melon, vegetable-marrow, pumpkins, and cucumber.
For Leafage, Flowers, or Seed Vessels.—The acanthus, oak, thistles, teazle, giant hemlock, cow-parsley, buttercup.
Of Garden Flowers.—The rose, lily, larkspur, peony, poppies, columbine, chrysanthemum, tulip, Christmas rose, Japanese anemone.
For Close and Intricate Designs.—Periwinkle, winter aconite, trefoils of various kinds.
Many valuable hints on this subject may be gleaned by a study of Gerrard's Herbal, which is full of well-drawn illustrations, done in a way which is very suggestive to the designer.
A careful study of the outline forms of leaves is a schooling in itself, so much may be learned from it. It teaches the relation between form and growth in a way which makes it possible to use the greatest freedom of generalization without violating structural laws. The same causes which govern the shaping of a tree are present in the leaf, settling its final outline, so that, however wandering and fantastic it may appear, there is not the smallest curve or serration which does not bear witness to a methodical development, and to every accidental circumstance which helped or hindered its fulfilment.
You could not do better than make a collection of suitable leaves, press them flat and trace them very carefully, keeping the tracings together in a book for reference. Accompanying this you should have in each case a drawing of the leaf as it appears in its natural state, always being careful to do this from a point of view which will accommodate itself to carving the leaf if you should have occasion to use it.
CARVING ON FURNITURE
Furniture Constructed with a View to Carving—Reciprocal Aims of Joiner and Carver—Smoothness Desirable where Carving is Handled—The Introduction of Animals or Figures.
You will find in the illustrations, Figs. 53 to 62, certain suggestions for various pieces of furniture. They are given with the intention of impressing upon you the fact that very little carving can be done at all without some practical motive as a backbone to your fancies. To be always carving inapplicable panels is very dull work, and only good for a few preliminary exercises. It is much better to consider the matter well, and resolve upon some "opus," which will spread your efforts over a considerable period. When you have decided upon the piece of furniture which is most likely to be useful to you, and which lies within your powers of design and execution, then make a drawing for it, and have it made by a joiner (unless you can make it entirely yourself), to be put together in loose pieces for convenience of carving, and glued up when that is finished. You should certainly design the piece yourself, as you should make all your own designs for the carving. The two departments must be carried on in the closest relation to each other while the work is in progress, otherwise their association will not be complete when it is finished. Take, for instance, the head of the bed in the illustration. Why should it stand up so high, like the gable of a house? It is for no other reason than to give an opportunity for carving. A plain board of half the height would have been just as effective as a protection to the sleeper. Useless as carving may be from this practical point of view, it must nevertheless be amenable to utilitarian laws. It must be smooth where it is likely to be handled, as in the case of the knobs on top of the posts; and even where it is not likely to be handled, but may be merely touched occasionally, it should still have an inviting smoothness of surface. As a matter of fact, all carving on a bed should be of this kind, with no deep nooks or corners to hold dust. Here, then, are a number of conditions, which, instead of being a hindrance, are really useful incentives to fresh invention. Just as the construction of joiner's work entails concessions on the part of the carver, so the carver may ask the joiner to go a little out of his way in order to give opportunities for his carving. A little knowledge of this subject will make a reasonable compromise possible.
You will find a further advantage in undertaking a fairly large piece of work. As it is almost certain to be in several parts, each may thus receive a different treatment, by which means you not only obtain contrast, but get some idea of the extraordinary power with which one piece of carving affects another when placed in juxtaposition. Whatever designs you may decide upon, should you undertake to carve the panels for a bed, let them be in decidedly low relief. The surface must be smoothly wrought, doing away with as much of the tool marking as you can, but this smoothing to be done entirely with the tools, not by any means with glass paper. Great attention must be paid to the drawing of the forms, as it is by this that the impression of modeling and projection will be expressed. A very pleasant treatment of such low relief when a smooth and even appearance is wanted, is to carve the ground to the full depth, say 1/8 in., only along the outlines of the design, and form the remainder into a kind of raised cushion, almost level in the middle with the original surface of the wood. The whole design need thus be little more than a kind of deepish engraving, depending for its effect upon broad lights defined by the engraved shadows. See Fig. 54 for an example of this treatment applied to letters.
Now I expect you to make a fresh design. The illustrations in all such cases are purposely drawn in a somewhat indefinite way, in order that they may suggest, without making it possible to copy.
Now we come to the mirror frame, Fig. 55. I should suggest that this be done in some light-colored wood like pear-tree, which has an agreeably warm tone, or if a hard piece of cedar can be found, it would look well, but in no case should polish be added except that which comes from the tool. The construction need not be complicated. Take two 3/4-in. boards, glue them together to form the width, shape out the frame in the rough. Put behind this another frame of 3/4-in. thick stuff, and make the cornice out of wood about 1-1/2 in. thick. The parts to be kept separate until the carving is finished, and afterward glued or screwed together. The carving on the body of the frame, that is, in the gable above and the front of bracket below, should be in very low relief, the lower part being like the last, a kind of engraving. The fret above may be sunk about 1/16 in. and the ground slightly cushioned. The carving on sides and cornice is of a stronger character, and may be cut as deeply as the wood will allow, while the cornice is actually pierced through in places, showing the flat board behind. The design for this cornice should have some repeating object, such as the kind of pineapple-looking thing in the illustration, and its foliage should be formed with plenty of well-rounded surfaces, that may suggest some rather fat and juicy plant.
In Fig. 56 you have a suggestion for carving a bench or settle, the proportions of which have been taken from one found at a Yorkshire village inn. The actual measurements are given in order that these proportions may be followed. It is a well-known fact, that chairs, or seats of any kind, can not be successfully designed on paper with any hope of meeting the essential requirements of comfort, lightness, and stability. Making seats is a practical art, and the development of the design is a matter of many years of successive improvements. A good model should therefore be selected and copied, with such slight changes as are necessary where carving is to be introduced. The main lines should not be interfered with on any account, nor should the thickness of the wood be altered if possible. The carving on this settle is intended to be in separate panels, about two inches apart. These panels will look all the better if no two are quite alike; a good way to give them more variety will be to make every alternate one of some kind of open pattern, like a fret. These piercings need not extend all over the design in the panel in every case: some may have only a few shapely holes mixed up with the lines, others again may be formed into complete frets with as much open as solid. (See Fig. 57.)
The carving should be shallow, and not too fine in detail, as it will get a great deal of rubbing. The material should be, if possible, oak; but beech may be used with very good effect—in neither case should it be stained or polished.
Fig. 58 is a clock case. Something of this kind would make an excellent "opus" such as I have alluded to, and give plenty of scope for invention. As clocks of this kind are generally hung on a wall, the brackets, from a practical point of view, are of course unnecessary, but as it is important that they should look as if they were supported and to satisfy the eye, something in the way of a bracket or brackets is generally added. A bracket like the one in the illustration, not being a real support constructively speaking, but only put there to give assurance that such has not been overlooked or neglected, becomes a kind of toy, and may be treated as such by adding some little fancy to make it amusing, and give an excuse for making a feature of it. This will be a good place to try your hand at some modest attempt at figure work. In designing your bracket, should you wish to introduce a little figure of man or beast, I think you will find it more satisfactory if the figure is separated from the structural part by a slight suggestion of solid surroundings of its own. Thus the little roof over, and the solid bit of wood under, the figure in the illustration serve this purpose, lending an appearance of steadiness which would be wanting in a bracket formed of a detached figure. At any rate, never make your figures, whether of man or beast, seem to carry the clock; you may hunch them up into any shape you like, but no weight should be supposed to rest upon them.
For sake of the carving, oak will be the best wood to employ in making this clock, or one like it, but Italian walnut will do equally well. The size should be fairly large, say about three feet over all in height. This will give a face of about ten inches in diameter, which face will look best if made of copper gilt, and not much of it, perhaps a mere ring, with the figures either raised or cut out, leaving nothing but themselves and two rings surrounding. This should project from the wood, leaving a space of about one inch.
If you are inclined to try a heavier piece of work, the bench or settle-end in Fig. 59 may give you a suggestion. In this there is a bird introduced in the shape of a cock roosting on the branch of a tree. It would require to be done in a thick piece of wood, say 3 ins. thick, and would be best in English oak. The idea will be, to cut away the wood from the outer lower portion, leaving only about 1-1/4 or 1-1/2 in. thickness, but at the top retaining the full thickness; in which the bird must be carved, the outer edges being kept full thickness in order to give the structural form and enclose the carving. The inside of this upper part, toward the seat, should also be carved, but with a smooth and shallow pattern of some kind, as both may be seen together, and in contrast to each other.
The introduction of figures leads me to a subject which it will be better to discuss in the next chapter, i.e., the question as to how far it is possible or consistent with present conditions to attempt anything that may bear the character of humor. But in the meantime here are three more subjects upon which fancy and ingenuity may be expended with profit. In Fig. 60 you have a heraldic subject. In all such cases the heraldry should be true, and not of the "bogus" kind. This shield represents a real coat of arms, and was done from a design by Philip Webb, being finally covered with gesso, silvered and painted in transparent colors.
Figs. 61 and 62 are suggestions for wooden crosses, oak being the best material to use for such a purpose. The carving should be so arranged as to form some kind of pattern on the cross. In Fig. 62 the black trefoils are supposed to be cut right through the thin pieces of wood forming the center portion, and the carving on that part is very shallow.
THE GROTESQUE IN CARVING
Misproportion not Essential to the Expression of Humor—The Sham Grotesque Contemptible—A True Sense of Humor Helpful to the Carver.
The dullness which comes of "all work and no play" may be said to affect the carver at times. He tires of carving leaves and ornaments: what more natural than to seek change and amusement in the invention of droll figures of men or animals? The enjoyment which we all feel in contemplating the outcome of this spirit in ancient work, leads us to the imitation of both subject and manner, hoping thereby that the same results may be obtained; but somehow the repetition is seldom attended with much success, while of original fancies of the same sort we are obliged to confess ourselves almost destitute. Who can behold the fantastic humors of Gothic carvings without being both amused and interested? Those grotesque heads with gaping mouths recall the stories of childhood, peopled with goblins and gnomes. It is all so natural, and so much in keeping with the architecture which surrounds it, the carving is so rude and simple, that it seems absurd when some authority on such matters makes a statement to the effect that all such expression of humor has become forever impossible to ourselves.
This important part of the question must be left to your own meditation, to settle according to your lights; experience will probably lead you ultimately to the same opinion. Meantime, the point I wish to impress upon you is this, that until you feel yourself secure, and something of a master of various branches of your craft, you should not attempt any subject which aims at being decidedly grotesque. There are very good and practical reasons for this; one is, that while you are studying your art, you must do nothing that may tend to obscure what faculties you have for judging proportion. Now, as all grotesque work is based more or less on exaggeration, it forms a very dangerous kind of exercise to the beginner, therefore I should never allow a pupil of mine to so much as attempt it. Do not think that I wish to discourage every effort which has not an ultra-serious aim. On the contrary, I am but taking a rather roundabout way to an admission that the humorous element has, and must have at all times, a powerful attraction for the wood-carver; and to the statement of an opinion that it should not be allowed to take a prominent place in the work of a student; moreover, that it is quite possible to find in nature a varied and unfailing source of suggestion in this respect (more, in fact, than we are ever likely to account for), and which requires no artificial exaggeration to aid its expression. Some tincture of the faculty is absolutely necessary to the carver who takes his subjects from birds or beasts, in order that he may perceive and seize the salient lines and characteristic forms, of which the key-note is often to be found in a faint touch of humor, and which, like the scent of a flower, adds charm by appealing to another sense.
The same argument applies to the treatment of the human figure. Let no student (and I may include, also, master-carver) think that a grotesque treatment will raise the smile or excite the interest which is anticipated. The "grotesque" is a vehicle for grim and often terrible ideas, lightly veiled by a cloak of humorous exaggeration; a sort of Viking horse-play—it is, in fact, a language which expresses the mixed feelings of sportive contempt and real fear in about equal proportions. When these feelings are not behind the expression, it becomes a language which is in itself only contemptible.
If, carried away by fancy, you must find vent for its impulses, and carve images of unearthly beings, at least make them cheerful looking; one can imagine such demons and goblins as being rather nice fellows than otherwise. A grim jest that fails is generally a foolish one—at least its perpetrator neither deserves nor receives sympathy for his discomfiture. Now, I shall show you one or two examples which may make this matter a little clearer to you, if you are at all inclined to argue the position. I think, at any rate, they will prove that the expression of humor does not always depend upon exaggeration, and may exist in a work which is, one may say, almost copied from nature. Fig. 63 is an example to this effect. The little jester just emerging from a flower, one of the side-pieces to a Miserere seat carving, is undoubtedly a true portrait, carved without the slightest attempt at exaggeration. The quiet humor which it evinces required only sympathy to perceive and skill to portray on the part of its carver. He had nothing to invent in the common acceptation of the word. The carving of the mendicant, which comes on the other side, is equally vivid in its truth to nature. It is so lifelike that we do not notice the humorous enjoyment of the artist in depicting the whining lips and closed eyes of the professional beggar. Observe the good manners of it all—the natural refinement of the artist who leaves his characters to make all the fun, without intrusion from himself other than to give the aid of his skill in representation. Now, subjects of this class will, in all probability, present themselves until the end of the world; but artists like this Gothic one are not so likely to be common. Great technical skill, a large fund of vitality, and many other controlling qualities are necessary to the production of such an artist; but he gives a clue to the right action, which we may with safety accept, even if we can not hope to equal his performance.
The center-piece, Fig. 64, tells a little story of Samson. It is noticeable in these medieval picture subjects, how, when a story has to be told, the details are treated in a broad and distinct fashion, as if the story could take care of itself, and only required to be stated clearly as to facts. The detached ornamental parts, on the contrary, receive a degree of careful attention not given to the picture, seemingly with the object of making their loneliness attractive.
The broad-humor characteristic of the companion picture of medieval life, in the little domestic scene, Fig. 65, is equally free from forced exaggeration or intentional misproportion. Scale and anatomy, to be sure, have had little consideration from the carver, but we readily forgive the inaccuracies in this respect, on account of his quick wit in devising means to an end.
Before we leave this subject, look at Plate II, in which you will see a curious use of misproportion—intentional, too, in this case—and used for quite other than humorous purposes. This is a little ornamental figure from the tomb of Henry IV, in Canterbury Cathedral. You will see that the body is out of all proportion; too small for the head which surmounts it, or too big for the feet upon which it stands. Now, what could have induced the carver to treat a dainty little lady thus? It certainly was not that he considered it an improvement upon nature, nor was it a joke on his part. It could only be done for some practical reason such as this: that the little figure does part duty as a bracket, hence, more appearance of solidity is required at the top, and less at the foot, than true proportions would admit. It is all done so unostentatiously that one might look for hours at the figure without noticing the license. Not that I should advise you to imitate this naive way out of a difficulty. The childlike simplicity of its treatment succeeds where conscious effort would only end in affectation.
In Fig. 66 you will see another little figure doing duty in connection with a stall division in the Lady Chapel at Winchester Cathedral. Its smooth roundness of form is very appropriate to the position it occupies; while its polished surface bears ample testimony that it has given no offense to the touch of the many hands which have rested upon it.
Fig. 67 shows another example of the same sort, but perched on a lower part of the division. This one is from the cathedral at Berne, each division of the stalls having a different figure, of which this is a type.
STUDIES FROM NATURE—BIRDS AND BEASTS
The Introduction of Animal Forms—Rude Vitality Better than Dull "Natural History"—"Action"—Difficulties of the Study for Town-Bred Students—The Aid of Books and Photographs—Outline Drawing and Suggestion of Main Masses—Sketch-Book Studies, Sections, and Notes—Swiss Animal Carving—The Clay Model: its Use and Abuse.
Nothing enlivens or gives more variety of interest to wood-carving than the introduction of animal forms. They make agreeable halting-places on which the eye may rest with pleasure. They are, in general, both beautiful in their shapes and associated with ideas which appeal strongly to the imagination, thus affording in masses of abstract ornament the pleasantest kind of relief by adding to it points of definite lineament and meaning.
To carve animals as they ought to be carved, one must have something more than a passing interest in their forms; there must be included also an understanding of their natures, and some acquaintance with their habits. A cattle-drover is likely to know the salient points of a bullock, a horse-breeder all those connected with a horse, and so on. We students, however, not having the advantage of such accurate and personal knowledge, must make shift in the best way we can to discover and note the points so familiar to trained eyes. To see animals in this way, and, with knowledge of their forms and habits, treat their sculptured images according to the laws of our craft, is no light task. If choice were to be made between a rude manner of carving—but which familiarity with the subject invested with lively recognition of character—and a more cultured and elaborate, but lifeless study in natural history, there should be no hesitation in making choice of the former method, because animal forms, without some indication of vitality, are the dullest of all dull ornaments.
It is quite impossible to describe in words the kind of "action" which is most appropriate to sculpture, it being much more a question of treatment, and the guiding spirit of the moment, than a subject which can be formulated. As a broad and general principle which may be taken for guidance, you will always find yourself on surer ground in the attempt to indicate the capacity for energy and the suggestion of movement, than you will if your aim is the extremity of action in any direction. You may, with some justice, point to the illustration given in Fig. 65, and which appears to contradict this statement, as being an example in which violent action is the key-note. You must notice, however, that the two figures, although struggling, are for the moment still, or may be supposed so. There is enough suggestion of this pause to excuse the attitudes and save the composition from restlessness—even the raised hands may be supposed to remain in the same position for a second or two. This imaginary pause, however infinitesimal, is essential to the dignity of the sculptor's art, as nothing is more irritating to the mind than being forced to recognize the contradiction between a motionless image and its suggestion of restless action. It is necessary to observe the same rule in the expression of actual repose, as some clue must be given, some completed action be suggested, in order to distinguish dormant energy from downright inertia. I should like to impress upon you the importance of making a special study of the characteristic movements of animals. You will in time become so far familiar with them that certain standards of comparison and contrast will be established in your mind as aids to memory. Thus you will be all the better able to carve with significance the measured and stately action of a horse, if you have in your mind's eye at the same time a picture of the more cumbrous and slower movements of a cow; and you will be helped in the same way when you are carving a dog, by remembering that the movements of a cat afford a striking contrast, in being stealthy where the other is nervous and quick.
For the unfortunate town-bred student or artist, who has had few opportunities to study birds and beasts familiar to the country schoolboy, there is no other way but to make the best of stuffed birds, photographs, etc. Much may be done with these aids if a little personal acquaintance with their habits and associations is added like salt, to keep the second-hand knowledge sweet and wholesome.
In the absence of opportunity for study from the life, no pictures of animals can compare in their usefulness to the carver with those by Bewick. They are so completely developed in essential details, so full of character and expressive of life, that even when personal acquaintance has been made with their various qualities, a glance at one of his engravings of birds or beasts conveys new meaning, either of gesture or attitude, to what we have previously learned. Every student who wishes to make a lively representation in carving of familiar beast or bird should study Bewick's engravings of "Quadrupeds" and "Birds."
Drawings made for the purpose of study need not be elaborate: indeed, such drawings are only embarrassing to work from. The most practical plan is to make a drawing in which the main masses are given correctly, and in about the same relative position that they will occupy in the carving. I give you in Plate VII an example of this in a drawing made by Philip Webb, who, by the study of a lifetime, has amassed a valuable store of knowledge concerning animals, and acquired that extraordinary skill in their delineation and the expression of character which is only to be attained by close observation and great sympathy with the subject. The drawing in question was made for myself at the time I was carving a lion for the cover of a book (given in Plate VIII). It was made, in his good-natured way, to "help a lame dog over a stile," as I had got into difficulties with the form. This drawing is all that a carver's first diagram should be, and gives what is always the first necessity in such preliminary outlines—that is, the right relationship of the main masses, and the merest hint of what is to come in the way of detail; all of which must be studied separately, but which would be entirely useless if a wrong start had been made. In Fig. 68 I give you tracings from some notes I made myself while carving the sheep in Plates V and VI. The object was to gain some definite knowledge of form by noting the relation of planes, sections of parts, projections, etc., etc. The section lines and side-notes are the most valuable part of the memoranda. In the same manner the illustration, Fig. 69, shows diagrams made from a heron, giving section lines of beak, etc.
The side-notes about the colors are valuable, as, although not translatable into carving, they do to some extent influence the manner of interpreting forms.
Photographs must not be despised, but they are only of use if read by the light of previous knowledge. For this reason you can not make too many notes of sectional structure through heads, necks, and legs, which will help to explain the mystery common to all photographs.
The bear shown in the frontispiece is traced from a photographic illustration which appeared in the Westminster Budget some time ago. By the merest accident it is suggestive of a subject almost ready for the carver's hand.
Until tourists began to explore the beauties of Switzerland, there were no better carvers of animals than the serious but genial craftsmen of that noble country, more especially of such animals as were familiar to their eyes. This preeminence shows distinct signs of soon becoming a thing of the past in the endeavors to meet the demands created by thoughtless visitors. Still, it is possible to obtain a little of the traditional work, uninfluenced by that fatal impetus originating in modern commerce. A piece of this kind is shown in Fig. 70, bought by a friend only a year or two ago in the Grindelwald, and which, although forming part of the usual stock of such things made for tourist consumption, was picked out with judicious discrimination from a number of stupid and trivial objects which displayed neither interest of design nor other than mechanical skill of carving. This little bear, a few inches in size, is carved in a way which shows long experience of the subject, and great familiarity with the animal's ways. The tooling of the hair is done with the most extraordinary skill, and without the waste of a single touch. Now, a word or two more on studies from the life before we leave this subject. I have given you examples of diagrams made for this purpose, but much may be done without any drawings, further than a preliminary map of the general masses. In the case of such an animal as the horse, which can be seen in every street, I have myself found it useful to follow them in my walks, taking mental note of such details as I happened to be engaged upon, such as its legs and joints, its head or neck; another day I would confine my attention to eyes, ears, mane, etc., always with reference to the work immediately in hand, as that is the time to get the best results from life study; because the difficulties have presented themselves, and one knows exactly what to look for. Five minutes spent thus after the work has been started (provided the start has been right and involves no mistake in the general masses) is more valuable than hours of labor in making preliminary drawings.
The use of experimental models in clay or wax has, of course, its advantages, but it will be well to know just how far such an aid is valuable, and at what point its use becomes hurtful to one's work. It is a common practise in large carving shops for one man to design the figure or animal subjects in clay, while another carves them in stone or wood. Now, apart from the difference in material and the unnatural "division of labor," which we have discussed before, it is beyond question that a model of this kind has even a more paralyzing effect on the actual carver than a drawing would have. Of course, the work is more certain to reach a recognized standard, and the risk of total failure is reduced to a minimum, but there is literally nothing left for the carver to invent; who, if he is a man with a turn for that kind of thing, and of a nervous temperament, must suffer untold irritation in its execution. The good and bad results of the use of a modeled pattern attend in a modified degree even where both are done by the same hand, but for all that it is a useful and convenient way of making experiments in doubtful passages of the work. The "how far" a model is to be carried must be regulated by the amount of confidence the carver has in his own foresight, but in any case it is always well to remember the difference of treatment required in plaster, clay, and hard wood, which lead to such different results that often fresh difficulty arises in having to translate the one manner into the other. For the purpose of roughing out the general scheme, the clay, if it must be resorted to, should be used in soft masses, then a drawing in outline made from this; but all doubtful detailed work should be carved, not modeled, and for this purpose the clay should be allowed to harden until it is nearly dry.
The opinions of the well-known wood-carver, Mr. W. Aumonier, on this subject, will be of value to you; he says with regard to the best method of going to work: "A fresh piece of wood-carving executed without a model is distinctly a created work," and that much good work may come by "chopping boldly at a block without any preconceived design, but designing as you go on." But he thinks it is best to work from drawings; "rough, full-size charcoal cartoons, which give the effect wanted by their light and shade." He also says that he "strongly protests against the too frequent use of clay or plaster models, because they are often worse than useless, and not infrequently absolutely immoral in their tendency, because they absorb time and money, which ought more legitimately to be spent on the carving itself."
FORESHORTENING AS APPLIED TO WORK IN RELIEF
Intelligible Background Outline Better than Confused Foreshortening—Superposition of Masses.
I have spoken of the necessity for careful balance between the outlines of subject and background: that both should be agreeable in shape. This becomes complicated and more difficult to arrange when we admit into our design anything resembling what painters call foreshortening, and the awkwardness is felt even in the placing of such a small thing as an apple-leaf, which may be treated in such a way that the intention of the drawing is entirely lost in the confusion which arises between the inferred and the actual projection.
In designing such subjects it will be good to bear in mind as a guiding principle that no matter what excuse there may be in the nature of the inferred position of the leaf or limb, the outline against the background must be at once agreeable and explanatory.
Every kind of work in relief develops a species of compromise in the expression of form, lying somewhere between the representation of an object on a perfectly flat ground, as in a painting, and the complete realization of the same form, copied from nature in some solid material, without any background whatever. In proportion to the amount of actual projection from the background, of course the necessity diminishes for that kind of foreshortening which is obtained by delineation. It might be inferred, therefore, that in very low relief—which is more nearly akin to the nature of a picture—more liberty may be taken in this direction. It is not so, however, for where actual depth or projection exists, as in carving, be it only so much as the depth of a line, it makes foreshortening well-nigh impossible, except to a very limited extent. There must be, of course, some appearance of this quality, so a certain conventional standard has been set up, beyond which one only ventures at one's own risk. Thus, care is taken that every object composing the subject lies with its longest lines parallel to the background. In this way the least possible violence is done to the imagination in completing the picture. As an example, no single leaf should be represented in relief as turning or coming forward more than it would do if plucked from the tree and laid loosely down upon a sheet of paper. A, Fig. 71, is an outline of an apple-leaf pressed out flat. B is an attempt to present it in violent foreshortening, showing its back to the spectator, while its point is supposed to be buried in the background. C is the same leaf turned the other way, and supposed to be projecting forward; both are exceedingly awkward and unintelligible as mere outlines, and if expressed in relief would not be any more convincing as portraits of the thing intended—rather less so, in fact, than the diagram, which has no projection to interfere with the drawing. So we must turn our leaf until it presents its long side more or less to the spectator, as in D; but even here part of the edge is so thin at a that it will be better to turn it a little farther, as in E, showing more of its surface, as at b.
Again, if we take as another example two apples, one partly covering the other, as in a, Fig. 72, where one apple is supposed to be behind the other, and so implies distance. There is no means of expressing this distance in carving. Lowering the surface of the hindmost apple would merely throw out the balance of masses without giving a satisfactory explanation of its position, while to cut a deep groove between the two would be an equally unsightly expedient. The difficulty should, whenever it is possible, be avoided by partially separating the two forms, as in b, where the center of the hindmost apple clears the outline of the other; thus making it possible to get a division without awkwardness.
A good expedient, where leaf or scroll forms are to be carved, and when very truthful drawing is necessary to explain their convolutions, is that adopted by Professor Lethaby at the Royal College of Art. It consists in cutting the leaf out of a piece of stiffish paper, and with a knife or pen-handle curling it into the required form. The main lines will thus be seen in true relation to one another, and all the distortion avoided which arises from disconnection of parts; not only that, but it is a useful aid to the invention, as much variety can be hinted at by a skilful manipulation in curling its lobes. Fig. 73 was drawn from a paper model of this kind. Of course, it is quite without the necessary veins or minor articulations, but is useful as a suggestion of main lines. With regard to subjects containing figures of men or animals, the same principle governs the placing of the whole body in the first instance, then of the different members, so that heads, arms, and legs take up a position as nearly as may be with a piece of background all to themselves. Thus, no two bodies should be super-imposed if it can be in any way avoided. (I am speaking now of moderate and low relief, although even in high relief the best masters have always respected the principle.) The temptation to imitate effects of foreshortening for its own sake is not without some excuse, as it is quite possible to make presentable pictures in this way. A horse, for instance, may be carved in low relief, presenting either its head or hindquarters to the spectator, and yet not look absolutely absurd. Again, a front face may be carved in the same way, notwithstanding the difficulty presented by the projection of the nose. Neither of these experiments can ever be said to prove entirely successful. It is not so much that they are either difficult or impossible, as that a more suitable method, one more natural to the technique of the carver, is being neglected, and its many good qualities sacrificed for sake of an effect which can never be fully realized in sculpture. To so dispose the various masses, great and small, that they fall easily into groups, each having some relation to, and share of the background, is a true carver's artifice. A skilful use of this arrangement makes it quite unnecessary to encroach upon the domain of another art in the imitation of an effect which may be successfully rendered with the pencil, but only so to a very limited extent with the carving tools.
You have all seen the actors, when called before the curtain at the close of the play, how they pass before it one by one, and perhaps joining hands make their bows in line, to all appearance, on a very narrow platform. The curtain is your background, while the footlights may stand for the surface of your wood. In illustration of this principle, let me call your attention to the arrangement of the animals in Plate VI, where economy of space, and a desire to display each detail to advantage, are the leading motives. I give it as the readiest example to hand, and because it fairly illustrates the principle in question. You must excuse the apparent vanity in making choice of one of my own works to exemplify a canon of art. The sheep at the top is supposed to be scampering over rocks; the ram below may be any distance from the sheep that you choose to imagine—the only indication of relative position is separation, by means of a ridge that may pass for a rock. The head of the ram is somewhat foreshortened, but there was enough thickness of wood contained in the big mass of the body to allow of this being done in the smaller mass of the head, without leaving too much to be supposed. The heads of the sheep in the fold have been as closely packed as was consistent with showing as much of each as possible, as it was considered better to give the whole head and no body than to show only a part of both: most of the bodies, therefore, are supposed to be hidden behind the wall, only one showing in part.
It is a general axiom of the craft, that every mass (be it body or leaf) must be made as complete in itself as the circumstances will allow; but, if partly hidden, the concealment should be wilful, and without ambiguity. Thus, a dog's head may be rightly carved as being partly hidden in a bucket, but ought not to be covered by another head if it is possible to avoid it.
UNDERCUTTING AND "BUILT-UP" WORK
Undercutting as a Means and as an End; its Use and Abuse—"Built-up" Work—"Planted" Work—"Pierced" Work.
By undercutting is meant the cutting away of the solid portions of projections in such a manner as to make them invisible, thus throwing the carved surface work into more complete relief by detaching it from the background. This device has often been carried so far, where the projection was sufficient, that entire groups of figures and foliage have been practically detached from the background, like pieces of separate sculpture carved all round. This desire for completeness of relief was more or less a departure from the orthodox aims of the carvers' craft, and led ultimately to what is known as "built-up" work—that is to say, work in which the projecting parts were composed of many different pieces of wood, each carved separately, and afterward glued or pinned together to form the composition. Many of the most elaborate carvings by Grinling Gibbons are of this kind; they have a charm of their own, but it is one of quite separate interest, and belongs to a category entirely removed from the art of carving objects in a solid piece of wood. Apart from this distinction, the difficulty of the method requires the most accomplished mechanical skill and a highly trained eye to either carve or compose such work in a way to command respect. I shall therefore dismiss this branch of the subject as being outside of our present limits.
Undercutting, on the other hand, is an expedient distinctly characteristic of solid wood-carving, and some experiments ought to be made by you in designing work in which it can be used. It may be either partial or complete—complete, of course, only up to a point; that is to say, the connection with the background must in every case be not only maintained but visibly demonstrated. Partial undercutting applies to such portions as the sides of leaves, the receding parts of heads, wings, etc., where the wood between the object and its background is cut away on an inward bend, either completing the projecting form, as in the case of a head, or merely to hide the superfluous wood in the case of a leaf. All this presupposes a certain amount of elevation in the relief; indeed, it is only in such cases that the process is necessary or can be carried out. The use of undercutting of this kind is like every other technical process, liable to abuse through too much being made of its effects. Fortunately the time it consumes is a safeguard against any tendency to run riot in this direction. The point at which it should in all cases stop, and that relentlessly, is where it begins to cause a separation between any entire mass of ornament and its background. If portions are thus relieved almost to complete detachment, but visibly reconnect themselves in another place, a certain piquancy is gained which adds charm without destroying character. A curious use is made of undercutting in the bunch of leaves given in Plate XI from a Miserere seat in Winchester Cathedral; it may be said to be completely undercut in so far that the whole bunch is hollowed out under the surface, leaving from 1/4 to 1/2 in. thickness of wood, in which the leaves are carved, so that you may put your finger in at one hole and see it at the bottom of another. The only end all this extra labor seems to have attained is that of changefulness in the shadows of the holes between the leaves, in which one sees dark rims with light at the bottom, a condition which certainly adds a mysterious lightness to the whole mass. It is a very refined and appropriate use of undercutting, but would only be possible where time could be spent to secure a variant of such epicurean delicacy, as all the superfluous wood must be taken out through the spaces between the leaves, and in this case they are not overlarge for that purpose.
Work which has its background entirely cut away, and which is afterward glued or "planted" on a fresh background to save labor, can not be called "undercut"; this method has generally a cheap look, as it is used with the object of saving time and expense. Carving which is treated in this way, but instead of being "planted" close to the background, is fixed at a little distance from it (as is the case with the lace-like designs fitted into the hollow moldings of fifteenth-century choir-screens), is of quite a different order, although even in this case it can not be strictly described as undercut: it is more nearly akin to pierced fretwork. It has, however, all the general effect of undercut work, and is the only possible way of obtaining this effect in wood where a large quantity of such ornament is required. The face of such carving is generally a little convex, while the back is hollowed out to give an equal thickness of section. The ornaments in Figs. 75, 76, and 77 are of this description, and are calculated to give great play of light and shade, and be seen well at a considerable distance.
Undercutting in the strict and more laborious sense must be reserved for occasions where the labor is repaid by the additional charm. It must be considered in the light of a tour de force, which, on account of its cost in the matter of time, should only be used under exceptional circumstances, care being taken to make it clear that it is an exception to the general rule of solid carving on a solid background.
PICTURE SUBJECTS AND PERSPECTIVE
The Limitations of an Art not Safely Transgressed—Aerial Perspective Impossible in Relief—Linear Perspective only Possible in a Limited Way.
Those vague and shadowy boundaries which separate the domains of the different arts are being perpetually called in question. By what landmarks such indefinite frontiers may be distinguished, and how far they may be extended or transgressed, will always be a matter of dispute. Excursions of conquest are continually being made, and conspicuous among these, one which animates the hopes of many sculptors and modelers. Its aim is the appropriation of those charms which are the peculiar property of the graphic arts, more especially their power of expressing the effects of distance by means of linear and aerial perspective.
The background of a piece of carving is so obviously solid and impenetrable that any attempt to imitate an appearance of distance is sure to defeat its own ends, the loss being greater than the gain. If there are limits to be observed in the foreshortening of a single leaf, how much more must they apply to the representation of whole landscapes? Properly speaking, there is no distance available in the carver's art; its whole interest lies near the surface, and in the direct rays of the light which illuminates it. There is even a distinct pleasure to be derived from the sense that it is all carved out of a block of such and such thickness, pointing to the reasonable conclusion that this thickness should never be lost sight of, the carving ever and anon returning to the surface as a measure of music does to its key-note. This is exemplified in all the great works of antiquity, among which the Parthenon frieze may be quoted as evidence. On the other hand, all pictorial sculpture, such as carved landscapes with figures diminishing both in scale and projection, necessarily fail to uphold this sense of solidity, as there must occur large spaces which are hollowed out far below the surface to give another plane on which to carve the more distant objects in low relief, in the vain hope of making them appear to recede. Work in which perspective of this kind is used must be viewed as nearly as possible from the point of vision produced by its vanishing-lines; this point is intelligible enough in the case of a painting, but when it comes to be carved into relief, if it happens to be seen from any other point of view, it necessarily looks all wrong, because every part is thrown into false relationship.
All this, of course, forms no argument against the use of explanatory landscapes with trees, buildings, etc. It only means that all such features must be treated in a way entirely different to that adopted by the painter—that is to say, in detached groups, each having some due relation to the original surface of the wood, and only very little to their perspective positions. In Fig. 74 are two diagrams of a landscape composition. The one is appropriate to a painted picture and the other to carving; both have pretty nearly the same number of features, except that in the carving there is no effect of distance attempted, whereas in the painting everything leads to this one particular distinction. The road goes into the picture, the bridge is seen end on, the house and mill are diminished in size, and the horizon is strongly enforced by a shadow echoed in the sky. The carving looks ridiculous beside the painting, but it is a severe test, as it is not a subject which should be carved at all in that condensed way.
The Necessity for Variety in Study—A Carver's View of the Study of Architecture; Inseparable from a Study of his own Craft—Importance of the Carpenter's Stimulating Influence upon the Carver—Carpenter's Imitation of Stone Construction Carried too Far.
That the study of wood-carving should be confined to the narrow field of its own performances would be the surest way to bring contempt upon an art which already offers too many temptations for the easy embodiment of puerile motives. Such a limited range would exclude all the stimulating lessons to be derived from the many other kinds of carving and sculpture; forgetful that they are, after all, but different forms of the same art, differing only in technique and application. It would take no note of the stately sculptures of Greece—the fountain-head of all that is technically and artistically perfect in expression of form—or of the splendor of imagination displayed in the ivories of Italy. Many another source of inspiring impetus would be neglected, including the greatest of all, the influence of architecture, and through it, the dignified association or the carver's art with all that is noble in the life of mankind.
The dry and uninviting aspect which a serious study of architecture presents to some minds is such that it is too often avoided as both useless and wearisome. Much of this diffidence is due to a misconception of the aims which should govern the student of decorative design in making an acquaintance with its principles. The study should not be looked upon as pertaining exclusively to the functions of an architect, nor as having only an accidental connection with particular crafts. It must be remembered that in the old days mason and carpenter were both craftsmen and architects, and the sculptor and wood-carver had an equal share in creating every feature which gives any distinction of style to the buildings that were the outcome of their united efforts. So, instead of looking upon the subject as only a study of dates for the antiquary, and rules of construction for the architect, the carver should take his own view, and regard architecture for the time being as what in some sense it really is: a very large kind of carving, which includes and gives reason for his own particular branch. The importance of the subject is proved by the experience of centuries; history showing plainly how the two arts grew in strength and beauty only when closely associated, and shared each other's fate in proportion to their estrangement.
In this place I can say but very little upon such a vast subject; all I can do is to call your attention to one or two examples of carved work combined with structural carpentry, in order that you may see for yourselves what a power of effect lies in that union, and how by contrast it enhances the value and interest of both. I do this in the hope that it may possibly lead you to a more complete study of architecture, for which there is no lack of opportunity in books and museums, but more especially in what remains of the old buildings themselves, with which a familiar and personal acquaintance will be much better than a theoretical or second-hand one.
No carver with a healthy ambition can long continue to make designs and produce them in wood without feeling intensely the want of some architectural occasion for his efforts. Had he only a barge-board to carve, or the canopy of a porch, it would be such a relief to turn to its large and general treatment after a course of the panels and ornaments peculiar to domestic furniture. Look, for instance, at the carved beams of the aisle roof in Mildenhall Church given in Plate III, and think what a fund of powerful suggestion lay in the bare timbers before they were embellished by the carver with lion, dragon, and knight. Even the carpenter became inspired with a desire to make something ornamental of his own department, and has shaped and carved (literally carved) his timbers into graceful moldings. Then, again, in the roof of Sall Church, Norfolk, shown in Plate IV, you have a noble piece of carpentry which is as much the work of an artist as the carved figures and tracery which adorn it—indeed it is all just as truly carved work as those figures, being chopped out of the solid oak with larger tools, ax and adze, so that one knows not which to admire most, carved angels or carved carpentry.
Plates XI and XII are details of the carvings which fill the spandrels of arch and gable in the choir stalls and screen at Winchester Cathedral. There are a great many of these panels similar in character but differing in design, some having figures, birds, or dragons worked among the foliage. They are comparatively shallow in relief, and this appears less than it really is owing to the fact that many parts of the carving dip down almost to the background, giving definite but not deep shadows. The main intention seems to have been to allow only enough shadow to secure the pattern, and then to emphasize this by means of a multitude of little illuminated masses. The leading lines run through the pattern as continuously as possible, but the surface of the leafage is divided up into numbers of little hills and hollows. The sides of these prominences catch and reflect light more readily than they produce shadow, so that it is possible to trace the pattern at a considerable distance by means of the lights alone. Unfortunately for all believers in the historical evidence of ancient handicrafts, this work was overhauled some half century ago, and in parts "restored." The old work has been imitated in the new with surprising cleverness, but for that, no one who has a clear sense of the true function of the carver's art, or of the historical value of its witness to past modes of life, will thank those who carried out the "restoration," so confusing is it to be unable to distinguish at a glance the old from the new, so depressing to find such laborious efforts wasted in pleasing a childish desire for uniformity of treatment when it could only be achieved at the cost of deception, and, I may add, so irritating to find oneself for a moment deceived into accepting one of the "restored" parts as genuine old work. To add to the deception, the whole of the old woodwork, as well as the new, was smeared over with a black stain in order the better to hide the difference of color in old and new wood, thus forever destroying its soft and natural color, as well as the texture of its surface, so dear to the wood-carver.
The fifteenth century in England was a period of great activity among wood-carvers, and many beautiful choir-screens were added about this time to the existing churches, all in the traditional Gothic manner, as the Renaissance influence was a full century at work in other countries before its power began seriously to affect the national style. The West of England (Somerset and Devon in particular) is rich in the remains of this late Gothic carving, some details of which are shown in the accompanying illustrations, Figs. 75, 76, 77.
As a general rule the supporting carpentry of these screens bears a strong resemblance to stonework; so imitative is it in treatment, that it is only by the texture of the wood and its lightness of construction that the distinction is made evident. Now a certain degree of modified imitation, where one craft models its forms of design upon those of another, using a different material, as in the case of woodwork imitations of arches, tracery, etc., is not only legitimate, but very pleasing in its results. To attain this end, the carpenter need only be true to his own ideals—there is no occasion to abandon the methods of his own craft in order to copy the construction which is peculiar to another. The resources of carpentry offer an infinite field for the invention of new and characteristic forms, and these may be made all the more attractive if they show, to some extent, the influence of an associated craft, but never fail to become wearisome if essential character has been sacrificed for the sake of an ingenious imitation. The structural parts of some of these screens are composed of elaborate imitations of stone vaulting and tracery, so closely copied as to be almost deceiving, therefore they can not be taken as good examples of suggestive opportunity for the wood-carver.
The carved work, on the other hand, is marked by a strong craft character, essentially woody both in design and execution. The illustrations referred to are typical examples of this kind of work, and, although the execution can not be indicated, they at least give the disposition of parts, and some idea of the contrast obtained by the use of alternate bands of ornament differing in scale, or, as in some cases, the agreeable monotony produced by a repetition of almost similar designs, varied slightly in execution.
Another prominent feature of church woodwork, which developed about this time into magnificent proportions, was the font cover and canopy. Many of these were, however, more like glorifications of the carpenter's genius for construction than examples of the carver's art, as they were composed of a multitude of tiny pinnacles and niches, the carver's work being confined to a repetition of endless crockets, tracery, and separate figures or groups. However, in Plate XIII an example is given of what they could do when working together on a more equal footing; although much mutilated, enough remains to show how the one craft gains by being associated with the other in a wholesome spirit of rivalry.
Tool Marks, the Importance of their Direction—The Woody Texture Dependent upon Clearness of Cutting and Sympathetic Handling.
The term "texture" is sometimes applied to the quality of finish which is characteristic of good carving; it has a somewhat misleading sound, which seems to suggest that the final treatment of the surface is the work of a separate operation. However, it is a right enough word, as the texture which wood-carvers aim at is that of the wood in which they are carving. One might naturally think that this texture must necessarily appear when the work was finished, but that is not the case, as it is only rescued by the most skilful use of the tools, and easily disappears under the mismanagement of clumsy or unsympathetic hands.
Texture in carving is in some respects on a parallel with tone in painting—it depends upon a right relation of many qualities. As in the painting good tone is the outcome of the combined effects of truth in color and a right balance of what are called the "values," together with decision in the handling of the brush, so in carving, texture depends upon, first, having a clear idea of what is being carved, and making it clear to others; that if it be round, hollow, or flat, it must be so indeed; that edges and sharpnesses be really where they were intended to be, and not lost in woolly confusion. Then again, as with the painter's brush, the tool must be moved by a hand which adapts itself to every changing plane, to all manner of curves and contours, with touches sometimes delicate and deliberate, at others broad and sweeping, or even, at times, brought down with the weight and force of an ax-blow.