Sunday, July 16, 2017

"pulling Out All The Stops" In a Grand Way

In August I will be taking a trip to Europe. It will be the first time since 2000 that I have been there, and the first time to return to Germany since I left more than 33 years ago. needless to say, I am very much looking forward to this holiday.

Château d'Écouen, home of  the Musée national de la Renaissance.

Most people would probably assume this to be a medieval building, but it 
was built in the 2nd quarter of the 16th century and is in the style 
of the French Renaissance.

I will be spending most of my time in the region of Paris, doing research for my business and visiting museums to feed my passion for things medieval. It was to that end that I found myself browsing a list of the Chateaus in the Ille de France, and came across this gem of Renaissance engineering/art. I will not actually be visiting this chateau because the renaissance is too modern for my medieval tastes, and too old for work related designs, (with only two weeks one must be very particular about priorities) but as a lover of history and all things well made, I found this extremely fascinating and wanted to share it with the tool loving sector of my audience.

All pictures have been gleaned from the internet, I had nothing to do with any of them.

Made for the Elector of Saxony in 1565, this 4,5 metre long wire drawing
machine is as much a work of art as a machine. Thousands of hours of work
must have gone into the inlay, carving, and steel engraving used to ornament
this remarkable device; the only one of its kind still extant.
Detail of some of the inlay used to ornament this machine

This was the picture I saw in Wikipedia which got me sidetracked from what
I was supposed to be doing. The web can be a real "rabbit-hole"

Detail of a wire-drawing plate and the braces used to hold it. Besides all the
 engraving, notice that the plate gets thicker towards the centre to prevent it
 bending. Each hole is a tiny part of a millimetre smaller than its predecessor 
allowing for subsequently finer wire with each pass.

Detail of the gear-box. To the right is the attaching point for the hand crank
which is the key to how this whole things works.

I am very familiar with wire drawing, an art that has been practiced since the Middle Ages, and by some accounts, was invented in Germany. I saw this basic art being performed at the jewelry shops I visited in Manila, essentially unchanged since its invention; the jeweler grasps a length of wire, which has been hammered into a thick rough wire shape, with a pair of pliers and pulls it through the largest hole. He then pulls it through the next, and each time he advances to the next smaller dimension hole until he achieves the size wire he is after. What I found fascinating in the pictures of this 16th century machine were all of the 'non-standard' wire shapes which were obviously produced as well. Obviously wire had many more decorative functions then than they do now. I zoomed in on the above picture so that all of the various shapes would be more easily visible, below.

Here one sees squares, stars, hearts, tear-drops, triangles  and lozenge shapes.
A feat of phenomenal proportion when one considers that each of these plates
 was made by hand, and the difference in size from one hole to the next is 
almost imperceptible. It is amazing that even with modern technology 
about the only shape of wire one will ever see is round.

In ages past people often put a lot more time and effort into the things they made, This sort of dedication to the art of ornamentation is a characteristic which is very appealing to me. Not all such machines were so lavishly enhanced, however, as this more humble 18th or 19th century version shows.

Very primitive and ordinary by comparison, but much more of an "everyday"
working machine.

I could not end with such a simple ordinary looking machine, however, so here is a detail of one of the legs to the one found in the Museum of the Renaissance.

Each leg is different, but all carved with a similar

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Utrecht Psalter and its Furnishings - Part V

Once more we come to our occasional series examining the furniture found in the 9th century Utrecht Psalter, now housed in the Universiteitsbibliotheek, (University Library) Utrecht. This study is being conducted alphabetically, as I have labeled the different types of furniture, and we are now come to the letter 'P'. This is a significant classification, because as far as I know, I have coined the phrase "Plinth Chair" to designate a type of seat which is the single most popularly illustrated device used for seating prior to the 14th century, across all forms of medieval artwork, but which no history of furniture has yet to point out as a distinct form.

David composing the psalms. (detail of fol 1v)
In this illustration we see a plinth chair, a foot stool, and a desk.
both the chair and the desk are depicted as paneled furniture

Most people assume these plinth chairs to be chests; if a "chest" is completely synonymous to an enclosed square or rectangular box form, then perhaps they are chest. I strongly disagree with this narrow classification, however, as there are numerous medieval illustrations showing both chests and 'plinth chairs' in the same scene, with a distinctly different form, and manner of decoration. They are, in my opinion, no more "chests" than an "ottoman" (known also as a tuffet or hassock) is a chest, which is incidentally a modern version of the former. Modern refrigerators are basically of 'cabinet' form, yet one never sees them classified as such in furniture books. I introduced this form of seating by the name of "Plinth Chair" a couple years ago here, so there is no need to repeat myself completely.

St John from a 9th century gospel book, Rheims
Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal MS 1171 fol 164v
In this illustration one clearly seas the difference between the chest
and the chair.

In the Utrecht Psalter, there are at least 21 illustrations depicting no less than 25 separate chairs of this type. There is no need to show multiple illustrations of them here, because, in keeping with the general impressionistic nature of the illustrations in this work, they are all of near identical design, showing only the basic form. A few have, as the above illustration shows, the addition of the indication of paneled construction by way of a secondary rectangle drawn within the perimeter of the main body.

Unfortunately, no chair like this has survived from any time in the medieval period, which leaves most people, without a second thought, to assume the objects in these illustrations to be chests. As can be seen in the above illustration, though, this particular design would be very impractical as a chest in the sense that we usually think of them, for reasons such as the very pronounced overhang of the top and the large protruding moulded base. Many of these chairs are also depicted, as the above example, with curved or shaped sides. This is not to say that they could not have been used for storage, no example that I have found in artwork is detailed enough to prove or disprove this concept. In fact, there is no reason to doubt that some would have been used as such. Others, however, are depicted with open arcading or in other forms of semi-openness which indicates that even if some examples might have doubled as storage items, they were not all used as such, nor was that their primary function. Simply put, they are a distinct form of seating, made and used as such.

9th century ivory panel, formerly part of a book cover, now in the Louvre

The above ivory panel detail is great for two reasons, the first is that it shows four such chairs in various states from completely enclosed (top left) to completely open, having only a base, and seat connected by four legs. (lower left) The top right could either be paneled or having openings, and the lower right depicts a plinth chair with solid ends, but open sides. (part of the ivory has chipped off of this one) The second reason I like this carving is because of the chest in the centre which completely flies in the face of most people's concept of early medieval furniture. This is more of a 'cabinet' in size and shape, has a vault shaped lid, and carved post and panel constructed sides.

The idea that early furniture, including these plinth chairs, was necessarily "crude" or "primitive" is further dispelled by two more illustration, this time from a later 10th century manuscript now located in Strahov Monastery in Prague, but originating from Trier, Germany. I have cropped the pictures to allow the details to be readily visible. The artist (known as "Meister des Registrars Gregorium") has indicated mitred corners to the panels in the body of the chair, gold accent to the moulding, and a carved acanthus leaf panel in the second example which is all in gold leaf with painted moulding. Some of the gold leaf has been lost on the left edge, revealing the very carefully drawn details of the chair.

Two details from a Trier Gospel book, now housed in the Strahov Monastary
ca 980

These chairs are illustrated in every century of the Middle Ages, from the 6th (the beginning of the "medieval" period)...

6th century panel from Rome, still very much in the "antique"
style of the Roman era.
This chair is exactly the same as the two 10th century examples. the 15th, which is the end of the Middle Ages. In fact, I have one example that I stumbled across from the middle of the 16th century, but cannot remember where I filed it.

From the British Library comes this early 15th century example
BL Yates Thompson MS 37 fol 103r 

This is an excellent illustration because it shows that just as in the 9th century, the artist made no real distinction between the altar (shown with two red tablets representing a diptych) and the chair. As I have mentioned many times before, the artists were usually not very concerned with details in book illustrations. In the Utrecht Psalter, the plinth chairs and altars have exactly the same form and only other associated items distinguish one (unoccupied) type of furniture from the other, just as the diptych does here.

As I have said, no such chair survives, so any attempt at reconstructing one would be purely speculative. Some clues to the type of ornament used, however, might come from carved stone panels of the same time period in question, such as this 10th century former altar frontal, shown below.

This carved stone altar panel might give some indication of what a moulded
wooden panel might have looked like.

I have no idea when these chairs first came into vogue, but throughout the course of the Middle Ages they remained extremely popular and survived well into our modern era. As times and tastes have changed, they have adapted to those changes in material and the application of ornament and finish, but their basic form held true for more than a thousand years. To me it is a great wonder that no one else has ever given them as much as a second thought or the place they deserve in books of furniture history.

Videre Scire

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Rant against Mediocrity

Anyone who has even been slightly paying attention to my blog posts will have noted by now that I like highly ornamental and decorative designs and do not shy away from the intricate or complex. I once designed something for a client, and when I presented the drawing, got the comment of "that is not going to be easy, is it?"to which I replied, "I do not do 'easy', If it was easy, it would be someone else's job." I enjoy the challenges that complex designs provide, and find making simple things extremely boring and uninteresting.

An early 19th century "Pietre Dure" table in the national Gallery, Washington
Made before people wanted everything "easy" to do
(own photo)

Part of my work involves coordinating tasks with other contractors to do work that I do not have time to do, or is outside of the scope of what I am proficient in accomplishing. In that vein, I was trying to work with three contractors this past week for the tasks of upholstery, painting, and marble work. All three had the same basic paraphrased complaint against what I wanted them to do. "That is too complicated, why can't you come up with a design which is easier?" They did not want to do the work I was asking for because it would take some actual thought and time (which they would be getting paid for) to complete. They would much rather do something simple and straight-forward; get done and get paid. Getting done seems to be the main goal of the modern contractor, with no enjoyment of the process of doing.

This reminded me of my college days studying interior design. At that time I realised why most modern architecture was so boring, In those days everything was still drawn on a draughting table with pencil, pen, triangle and parallel ruler. As a result, everyone wanted to do the simplest design they could get away with. once, we all had one project which involved drawing several walls all in brick, all of my classmates griped and complained endlessly about how long it took to do. Many of them tried to come up with methods to avoid drawing the bricks altogether, such as using a plastic brick template which would imprint the pattern onto the parchment, or drawing a grid instead of a running bond, both with horrible results. Draughting itself is an art which takes skill and practice to perfect, and something which one can take pride in achieving; an art which is completely and sadly lost with the age of computers. (The twisted irony is they now have programs to make the computer renderings "look like" daughtsmanship to give it "character"!)

I often got into conflict with my professors over design style; they wanted me to do "modern" things, and I wanted to do things which had style and elegance, which, to them were usually "outdated" or too complex, There was a sense that any style that had been previously used could not be used again, except that did not really hold true, because simple designs void of any decoration or real creativity had been being invented for most of the 20th century, fueled, in my opinion, by two things; a desire to be different, for the sake of difference, at the cost of beauty, and a general laziness resulting in trying to make things "easier".

A former factory building in Seville, Spain. It was built from day one as a factory
and continued as such until the 1950's
(source, Wikipedia)
A modern factory. Both of these factory buildings were built to process the same
raw material. The first was built in an era when people took pride in what they
built. I wonder if anyone would be interested in the second facade 300 years
from now. This is the sort of design my professors expected me to produce
but the first image is the sort of designing that I wanted to do. Sadly,
our world is now filled to overflowing with the sterile hulks of this style.

Wanting to make things "easier" is nothing new in human history, we have been inventing labour saving devices for thousands of years, and for the most part, these inventions have been useful and helpful. The past hundred years though, have marked a new phase in human invention, which is going from improving the way things get done, to creating devices for the lazy, and encouraging a general lack of skill. I have a poster on my wall with a quotation from Ogden Nash, " Progress may have been all right once, but it has been going on far too long." (He died in 1971, I wonder what he would think of 2017?)

Pick up any woodworking companies' catalog, today, and one will find hundreds of gadget which are designed to be so simple and easy to use, that "anyone" can do a task which formerly required someone with an acquired set of skills to accomplish. It used to be that a carver, for example,  would begin as an apprentice when  his muscles and brain were still so young as to be easily taught, he would then spend his youth honing his skills to be able to achieve the exquisite carvings which are seldom ever seen by even the best carvers of our day. (There is a reason that the best guitar players of our times all began playing when they were kids, it is much more difficult to train the adult mind/hand coordination.) Nowadays, no one seems to even be willing to invest the amount of time in a lot of skills to become proficient at them, and instead try to invent machines and computers to substitute for the time they do not want to spend. This comes partly from a lack of interest in keeping skills alive, partly from valuing income over a pride in accomplishment, and in my opinion, a general laziness inherit in our general human race. Personally, my biggest argument for my belief that God is an human invention is found in the very writings which are supposed to "prove" his existence. In this story, God "spoke" and things appeared, this has a very suspiciously human characteristic to it; a true "creator" would relish and enjoy the act of creating, he would want to "get his hands dirty" and actually be actively involved in making the things he thought of. A lazy human wants to "speak the word" (press a button on a computer) and have things come instantly into being.

A sad byproduct of this 'dumbing down' of creativity and design and of trying to make everything as simple as possible, has been to produce generations of consumers who no longer even know what fine quality, design and creativity look like. They go to the stores and shops and see mass produced rubbish and assume that is the way things should look. As a result, almost no one wants to pay for anything to be made well. I once spent eight hours hand rubbing the finish on a small table to give the look of a highly polished antique, but the client did not like the "streaks" that sharp light made visible; I spent five minutes spraying it with an aerosol finish and they were delighted. (I was appalled) All of the other furniture in their house was finished that way and when presented with something much finer, they had no point of reference in which to receive it. Taste is something acquired through exposure and education, as is the lack of it.

Another sad thing is that, for the most part, we are really no longer even able to produce the quality of work which was achieved in ages past. As a collective society, we have lost the skills and there is almost no one left to teach them to others. It is like we have artistically entered another "dark ages" if we compare the work created now, to that of the 16th through 18th century (and even before). in my work, I try to do the best I can, and strive always to improve and hone my skills, but I will readily admit that compared to the fine work produced in past centuries (and even by a few modern artists) my work is scarcely more than amateur cobbling. I have not had the fortune of receiving an apprenticeship to a true master of anything and have had to try the best I can to teach myself the "skills" that I do have.

My ceiling which I recently finished. Though I am a bit proud of what I
created, it is a far cry from a master of the 18th century as pictured below

The irony of the whole evolutionary process is also very stark. Before the 20th century a well established artist or a fine cabinet maker had a much more prestigious place in society and a better comparative economic position than his modern counterpart (does he even have a modern counterpart?) has for all of the time and labour-saving devices which have been invented since the time of such illustrious artists and craftsmen as Giotto, Michelangelo, Charles Boulle, Gringling Gibbons, or David Roentgen.

A random robot carved design as found on the web by a company advertising'
their "carving" machine
A carving by Gringling Gibbons illustrates the quality of carving to be had
in the late 17th century

In this modern world in which we find ourselves living, we are caught in a vicious cycle of a lack of clientele willing to pay for truly well made products and a lack of artisans skillful enough or willing to take the time to produce them. Laziness and mediocrity have become the norm of our world and no one seems to be concerned. This really leaves me to wonder what this new century will bring?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Assumptions and Closed Minded Prejudices

This past week I was reading something related to a stone monument which is supposed to mark the grave of a certain Boethius, who was bishop of Carpentras, a town in southern France, from 583 to 604. According to what I read, "the sculptor was ignorant of Greek, and no doubt all language, because he has placed the cross in reverse, with the 'Omega' before the 'Alpha'".

The plaque reads, "stone tomb of  Boethius, bishop of
Carpentras and Vasque from 583-604"
Picture from Wikipedia

The French Wikipedia says that this stone was originally ornamented with semi-precious stones and glass, (presumably in the little squares within the cross, for example). It does not say so, but from what I know of artwork at this time, and bishop's tombs, it would have been covered in gold foil or gilded as well. This is also only part of the original tomb.

The thing I take issue with, here, is the idea that people automatically assume that the artist was "illiterate". For the past couple of weeks I have been reading The History of the Franks, written by Gregory of Tours in the late 6th century. He speaks a lot of the goings on in France at the end of the 6th century, and even mentions this Boethius by name. He obviously did not mention his death or tomb, because Boethius died about 13 years after Gregory did, but one does not get the impression from reading his work that artists of his day were ignorant or uneducated. In fact, the remarkable thing one gleans from reading this work is how much life seems to go on, in his mind, as it always had. He sees himself, and the people of France as the natural extension of the "Gauls" of the Roman period, and mentions nothing about a "fall" of the Empire. In fact, he refers many times, in his work, to the "emperor" (Justinian, who's portrait can still be found in two basilicas in Ravena). The only thing out of the ordinary which he mentions are many unnatural phenomena such as a couple meteor strikes, and other wild natural disasters, and the Franks seemingly incessant penchant for violence against one another. 

Because we are so programmed to think that this period was the deepest of the "Dark Ages" whenever we see an anomaly like this, the automatic assumption is that the person involved was ignorant. We do not even stop for a second to contemplate whether or not there could be another explanation. This is proof positive of our viewpoint, and therefore there is not need to give another second's worth of consideration. I could not disagree more strongly!

While it might be possible that the artist was in fact illiterate, this is "proof" of nothing. Artists worked from models, other works, or pictures in books. Might it be possible that this was not originally the tomb stone, but a stone mould for casting a bronze plaque for the tomb? (if it was a mould, the cast piece would not be reversed) It might also be possible that what this artist had as an example was a mould for a cross and he forgot to reverse it. How many times have modern people done the same thing? I know I have several times, such as when I wanted to carve a stamp for my monogram. I guess I must be illiterate as well.

Matrices for embossing metal. These are for embossing so the image
would look the same in the stamped metal. I have an image of a fragment
of a carved stone from Cluny which was used as a mould but cannot
seem to find where I filed the picture. A casting makes a reverse
image of what is carved.

If anyone getting something backwards is an automatic indication of illiteracy, then what does that say about the curators of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York? I noticed this fragment on the wall when I visited last summer. You see, we cannot assume just because someone did something other that the way it is "supposed to be" that they are automatically illiterate or ignorant.

Which is a sign of worse illiteracy, backwards or upside down?
A stone slab displayed in the met with the "Alpha and Omega" upside-down 
 Perhaps there is another excuse, and in the case of the MET, we would naturally give that assumption. In this case, if the Alpha and Omega are right side up, then "Chi Ro" symbol for Christ (the X with another vertical line and and half loop which is an R) would be upside down. So perhaps here is another example of another "illiterate". If we can give a modern person the benefit of doubt and possible human error, why not for the anonymous 7th century mason as well? 

Videre Scire

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Painted Ceiling

It has been mentioned in this blog a few times before that although I make my living primarily as a cabinetmaker, in fact, I am an artist. Once in a while, I actually get paid to be an artist, which gives me great satisfaction. Such was the case for the past two weeks, in which I completed the following project. (working 12-14 hour days)

A painted medallion for the ceiling

I actually did this bit last summer; making a plaster medallion, then painting it, and installing it.

The plain plaster medallion, and after painting the ornaments gold

This year the clients asked me to paint the entire ceiling, so I had to make a design that would fit with the painting I had already done in the centre. The clients also allowed me to paint a few putti so long as they were "not naked" (even a crossed leg was not acceptable) Other than that restriction, and the comment that they wanted some birds, they actually gave me free reign to do what I wanted, which was very commendable.

Because of my perpetual problem of forgetting the memory card, this is the
closest I have to a "before" picture. This was at the beginning of the second
day of painting

The best way I could come up with to draw on the
ceiling; chalk taped to a stick

Neck-breaking work, this really gives a new appreciation
to the work that went into some of the great historical ceilings.

After one day of drawing and another of painting I realised I needed to come up with a better way to do this and save my neck. I thought of the method that Michelangelo supposedly used of making the scaffold high enough he could lie on his back, but this obviously would not work, because one thing an artist needs to be constantly doing is stepping back to observe his progress. (I achieved this by lying on the floor of my scaffold) In my opinion, what he probably actually did, was make a platform that he could move around on his scaffold and lie on that. I came up with a slightly less cumbersome, but not quite as effective, method of making a sort of chair. It had the advantage of allowing me to easily access my paint, but the disadvantage was that it still does not give as good of a perspective as lying down does. It also limits the area where one can work,and I was constantly moving it around. When I would get energetic and want to move from place to place quickly to work on multiple areas simultaneously, I had to just skip the thing altogether..

The clouds are finished here, I managed to get them to make sense with those I
had previously done in the medallion

The putti were drawn onto poster paper and then cut out to use as templates;
everything except the silhouette had to be done free-hand and therefore I
taped the drawing to the ceiling beside the painted in shapes to
 use as a reference 

Putti number two...

...three and four, plus a dove

This bloke looks terrible

As I began painting these figures, I realised how "rusty" I was at it. I had not painted figures in the past 8 years and I was never much for painting figures most of my life; add to that the additional challenge of painting upside down, and I really struggled to get going on this. I had intended to finish all four figures in one day, but at the end of that day, I had only done their silhouettes and this guy, which I was very unsatisfied with.

Another more detailed drawing, and a fresh start
made a difference, but it was still a bit of a

The third one went better...
It only took a bit over three hours to get this one

Once the main ceiling was finished, I added a "faux" border to it, painted to
look like moulding.

Again, my template only gave me an outline, I then had to paint all the
details in by following my drawing. I first did the highlights, then the shadows.

After adding a few birds, I was happy with the results, as testified by
my signature

This little baby cloud escaped from his parents up in the sky and came down
to have a look into the room

And these two are trying, though not very hard, to catch a bird. I managed
both of them and the bird in four hours; the rust was beginning to loosen up

For me, art should be more than just a "picture"; it needs to have secret things, which must be searched out. it must have things that cause you to study it, and it should keep you finding new things each time you view it. To this end, even though the composition is simple, I have added many things for contemplation, such as the cloud, which at first glance someone might mistake for a "mistake". This causes you to have another look. and then, once you find the answer to this riddle, you might think to search for more. There are plenty, such as the putto with a bow, but no arrow; look at what his companion holds. Two other putti are engaged with a dove, though the dove is perfectly unconcerned with their playful attempts at catching him.

The finished ceiling as one sees it upon entering the house; as if he is looking
up into the sky.

And here it is seen as one reads a picture on an horizontal plain.
All of the moulding is illuminated as it would be from the natural light coming'
in the window. I used  models to check for the lighting effect for each section.