Sunday, June 23, 2019

History Repeats Itself

This blog carries on in many different directions and of late it has not gone very far in any of them. Circumstances in my private life have left me much less time to devote to this project, but from time to time I manage to squeeze a bit of time out for it. It has been a while since I have been able to add anything of interest to the portion of my audience which is interested in the Middle Ages and therefore it seemed a good idea to put something here for all of you who are primarily interested in that aspect of this blog.

Reading any history of "The Middle Ages" one will find many generalisations. This is partly due to lack of space and a desire stick to whatever general them is being discussed, but it is also partly due to a false presumption that "The Middle Ages" was a single time period and a single culture. (and, yes, this is also a gross generalisation) Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth and one could write volumes on the diversity of life based on regions within Europe, (which is generally the area inferred when Western authors are speaking of this time-period). Add to that the fact that the medieval period is a span of roughly a thousand years and one should quickly get the idea that almost anything mentioned under a blanket statement of "during the Middle Ages" must be a very broad generalisation with a lot of exceptions being expected.

One thing that has occurred to me as being useful in helping to convey certain aspects of the artistic and creative variety in the Middle Ages, is to compare that time period with a much more recent, and therefore better understood period in modern history. What I am referring to is the (mostly) 18th and 19th century European colonial period.

On the left is a replica of the American President, Abraham Lincoln's birth-
place. On the right, a painting from 1668 of the palace of Versailles as it
was at that time, nearly 150 years before Lincoln was born.

Very quickly and briefly, the point of comparison to be made with these two periods in history is the diversity of quality of life (measured by the quality and quantity of possessions, the availability and prevalence of refined goods and the prevalence of luxury objects) from region to region and distance from primary sources of commerce and industry. To bring the point home quickly, consider that the famous American President, Abraham Lincoln, (born 1809) growing up in his primitive log built house in the forest of the American hinterlands was doing so more than one hundred years after the glorious "Sun King" of France rebuilt Chateau de Versailles. (a continuous work of expansion and remodeling from 1661-1715)

Just as in Australia, South Africa, or the Americas, where most places were more remote, rustic and rudimentary than the cities and towns of Europe from which the emigrants had originated, life in rural Medieval Europe would have been much more "primitive" than what would have been found in large cities such as Rome, Mainz, or Palermo. (A modern reader will be surprised to learn that some of the largest modern European cities, such as Paris and London, had approximately 20,000 residents by the middle of the Middle Ages [1000 ad], whilst other now relatively smaller cities such as Laon, Milan and Regensburg had much higher populations [25,000 30,000 40,000 respectively].) In the colonial territories of the modern era, imported goods were expensive and the lack of sufficient capital and clientele to support the local production of finer wares and goods ensured that on a relative scale, colonists led a more simplified existence than did their European piers, irrespective of their social status. In the 18th century Americas, even the grandest of houses paled in comparison to the chateaus and palatial dwellings of their continental contemporaries. As wealth increased and more goods were manufactured locally and the quality of life increased in urban areas, there was still the same relative disparity in the more remote or "frontier" life in faraway places.

Geographic placement had everything to do with the disparity between these two
pieces of furniture from the time of Louis XIII.

Taking this into account, one should look again at the way we view "life in the Middle Ages" with respect to architecture and personal property. It would probably be a safe assumption that a nobleman living in the northern or western UK or the northern half of Germany would have less opulent personal possessions than would his piers in Central, or southern Italy or the heart of the Franco-Germanic lands in the Middle of the period in question.

One factor that adds another curve to the entire equation, however, is the shifting fortunes, over the thousand years of consideration, of any particular region. Consider for example, the fact that whilst the population of Cordoba Spain in the year 1000 was roughly 110,000, (actually the most populous European city at the time) by the year 1100 it had fallen to 60,000. One could probably assume, that in this area a lot of artists and craftsmen lost their jobs or had to scale back the production of what they had been accustomed to doing. Likewise, the city of  Paris rose from roughly 20,000 inhabitants to 50-65,000 in the same time period. It would be a fair guess that, here, craftsmen made a pretty good living during this time. In fact, there are a lot of surviving architectural and decorative objects which bear out this assessment.

I do not wish to make an absolute connection between remote areas and poor quality of products, because, as I have said in the past, good artists have always been found in every period and every place. The degree to which these craftsmen would have been able to support their craft and the resources which they were able to utilise in their production were very much relevant to the region and time in which they lived and to the degree in which they were able to produce luxurious and opulent objects. An artist working in a remote region with less available resources and less wealthy patrons would generally produce works of a more utilitarian and fundamental quality with an emphasis on practicality and functionality, but one must bear in mind, that even these objects would have been decorated according to vernacular stiles and to the degree of which the patron had paid for.

Two baptismal fonts from the late 11th or early 12th century, both found
in small churches in the UK, but the first is from Portchester, an important
trading town during the 9th-13th centuries. The second comes from a small
church in a remote corner of England, near Wales, a region not particularly
important for anything. (unless you are from there, then perhaps it is)
Both of these fonts, and many others can be found on a website listing all of the known, extant Romanesque artifacts in the UK, and is a fascinating "rabbit-hole" to visit.
Another factor which altered the productive "landscape" of any particular region would have been the discovery or improvements in production of a local natural resource. The area around Rammelsberg in Germany is one such example. This region was far enough away from most of the larger and more prosperous cities of the early Middle Ages to be considered a "remote region". Although mining had been practiced there since the Bronze Age, the increased 9th and 10th century exploitation of the minerals found in the mountain led to the eventual relocation of the Imperial seat of the Holly Roman Empire, with a palace being first built in the town of Goslar (at the foot of the mountain) by Henry II (Heinrich II) in 1005. With the imperial court in the midst of the town and metals being mined and shipped throughout the world, it is doubtless that skilled craftsmen and artisan could be found in abundance in this area, and in fact, the surviving portion of a throne of the 11th century bears witness to the skill of this region. Although mining in the mountain continued almost to the end of the 20th century, by the 13th century the political winds had changed and the imperial court had moved on; doubtless taking some of the skilled trades with it. From the story of this region we could compose a probable anecdotal story of the general rise and fall of the overall quality of craftsmanship in this area.

1875 architectural rendition of the Imperial hall of Goslar, which was
originally built in the 11th century. Sadly, this building is of little use to
a student of early medieval architecture and even less so for the study
of interiors as it spent most of its existence serving other uses to that
of an imperial palace.By the 19th century is was little more than a
ruined hulk.

I have posted this before, but it is a very nice example of what
quality furniture decoration could be in the 11th century

History has had many twists and turns with the rise and fall of empire, commerce and trade, and the story of the arts has gone hand in hand with it, but no matter the degree of flourish or decline, those in the furthest reaches of civilisation would have had a much simpler and more rugged existence than would their more urban/industrialised contemporaries. The goods and possessions locally crated for these individuals would have generally followed, in comparative decorative quality, to those same existing conditions. It was not a "medieval" condition which created artifacts of simple and "crude" form, but rather one of locality and economic factors as was continually demonstrated in every century of human existence right up to our own. (For example, no wealthy rancher in the western state of Wyoming ever built an estate so large or grand at the Biltmore, built by the Vanderbilts in the east of the US during the "gilded age".)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Finished At Last

It has been quite some time since I posted anything on this blog and I apologies to everyone who has been patiently waiting for any news. The truth is that the project that I have been working on since November, and actually for more than two yeas, took far longer to complete than I had anticipated.

Originally I was to have been done by the end of December, but it quickly became obvious that that would never happen. I then projected an end of January completion but as thee gilding went on and on that got pushed into February. To push completion off even further the client wanted me to finish two more small rooms connected to the main room, so here we are at the middle of April and finally it is done (almost).

This is the same wall featured in the last blog when the cornice was underway

I said almost because there are still a few things that will eventually get done. For one thing, the panels on the cabinets are too plain and I am planning some parquetry for them, surrounded by a thin gilt border. There is also talk of doing some faux marble on the lower wall panels, but that has not been finalised. In addition, the two panels over the doors need some painting, so in fact, there is still quite some work to do in this room. The good news, for the client, however, it that he can finally begin using his office, something that he has been eagerly looking forward to for nearly two years, since the planing of this first took place.

I was so busy with this project in January and February that, were breathing an option, I would have forgone that. By the end of March, however, I was really needing a break and took one in the form of visiting Washington DC to see the cherry flowers one cloudy, chilly, spectacular Sunday morning.

I always love spring and all of the flowers that
come with it

A couple weeks ago I also was asked to participate in Catholic University's "Medieval Day" where I had a table set up with some of my carving, boxes, and a couple reproduction medieval tools created by myself. Unfortunately most of the pictures that I took did not make it onto the memory card, (I have no idea what that was about) but I did capture this very poignant image.

Time Travel?

Back to the room, here are a couple more shots. In honestly, when I look at the whole thing it almost makes me wonder why it took so long to get finished. The end was so long in coming that the completion was very anti-climatic. At least the clients are pleased with it.

The doors are made to look like the double doors found in many French
chateaus, but in fact, because they are scaled down, they are each only a
single door which opens from one side. Eventually these over-door
panels will be decorated with monochromatic painting

I don't like taking pictures with the flash on the camera because it tends to "wash out" a lot of areas but this one is not too bad and it gives a much closer to true colour impression.

Fairly accurate colour rendering 

Oh, yes, one more thing that still wants finishing; the leather on the top of the desk has not yet been attached. There is still a lot of decorating and furnishing to do to make this a completed office, but these five pieces are my work and thus their inclusion in these pictures.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

...and so begins another year

I have not had much time to post anything on this blog lately and probably all of my readers are wondering what I have been up to.

The answer is that I have been very busy trying to get this room finished up for the client by the end of the month. I still have a ways to go, but am making progress.

Here are a few pictures for those who have been clamouring to see.

I forgot to take a picture before I started, but this is one just after things
got going. The big plywood boxes are full of the plaster cornice segments

The short answer is carving, painting, gilding, and finishing.

Once this room is finished I will put up some more pictures...stay tuned.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

So Ends Another Year

As hard as it is to believe, another year has come and gone. It is nearly the end of the second decade of this century. Children born at the beginning of it are already considered to be "legal adults" and I still have not fully realised that we are not still working on the "turn of the century" Why does time have to fly by so quickly? So many things we want to do, so many things left undone. I guess history is filled with half-finished plans.

Anyway, my job and trying to renovate a condo has been keeping me to busy to have time for blogging, but I wanted to wish all of my readers a Happy Christmas and  great start to a new year.

I wish all of you all the best and leave you with an intriguing painting from the Cloisters in New York. I like this painting for the Escher-esque way that the front corner of the roof seems to be supported by the front wall of the "cave".

Nativity from the 

All the best for 2019!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Busy Summer

This blog was mostly created for the purpose of sharing my discoveries and personal creations related to my own private study of medieval furniture and interiors. Along the way I have also included other things that I have done or been working on, including a renaissance table and the rococo rooms and furniture that I have been working on for the past three years. (Yes, amazingly, it has been that long since I began that project.) It has been quite some time since I have posted anything on this blog, because I have been very busy, and I have done nothing related to the Middle Ages for months. However, due to an increasing cacophony of 'wondering what I have been up to', I thought I would quickly put up some pictures of what I have been working on since the summer began.

All of this work was not performed by myself entirely. I functioned partly as a conductor; designing, demonstrating, and orchestrating the production of the various components what went into this job, and then working exclusively to install and finish everything once it was ready.

Newly refurbished foyer. This was the second phase. In phase on, I had
done the faux marble panels and the mirror and consoles.
One of four carved panels for the railing

For comparison, here is the foyer as it stood in June

Two more views, showing the other three painted
panels and railings

In addition I went to Dubai and engaged an embroidering company to hand stitch the fabric for some new benches in the passageway; I also did some wall sconces and girandoles for the walls. This room was largely finished already, but I had always intended to add the benches and wall-mounted objects.

Just a reminder of when I had just begun Feb. 2016
Completed passageway with benches etc installed

The fabric as it was delivered to my hotel room and the bench, edited in
Photoshop by myself, as presentation to the client before it was shipped
A bench in Versailles which I photographed on my visit there and which
served as the inspiration for the one I made. (mine is 30 per cent smaller)

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Theories Which Pan Out

Often, when studying historic things, there is no recorded evidence of the how or why of something, and we are left to guess. Sometimes we come up with theories of the way in which things might have been done, but the best is when we get a theory and are able to produce a "proof of concept" experiment to support the idea.

Beginnings of another box lid 

Such was the case for me last autumn. Steffen had a large log from an ash tree that had been cut down and he was converting to firewood. He suggested to me that perhaps I could use part of it to make something. I have always wondered about working "green" wood, but have never done so, so this seemed a good opportunity to have a go at it. The log was around 500mm in diameter, so I thought perhaps I could use it to fashion a lid for a nice sized box.

I did not take a picture of the log, but this is how I went about cutting it up.
The green side is about 280mm which means to say I should be able to make
a 270mm wide box

Back in January I did an article featuring the myriad possibilities of ornament of a small box. All the boxes I featured had a shared characteristic; that of having a "roof shaped" lid. This was no accident, as I had been working on the lid which I am now speaking of, for an as-of-yet unmade box.

A 7th century Irish Insular box with a lid carved out from a solid chink of

My theory, as I had come up with it over the past couple years, supposes that there was actually a reason behind the shape to the lid. (The design goes back at least to the 15th century BC, as is proven by Minoan civilisation clay chests, made in this form, to imitate wooden ones.) It seems to me that just as with the hollowing out of the back of three dimensional wooden figural sculptures to prevent cracking, that these lids could have been made green and the wood would not split or check at the ends. I cut out the lid blank last November and worked it in December, before leaving on a long business trip. 6 months later, when I returned, I had proof that my concept worked. The only cracking that occurred on the lid was what started back in November when I left the half carved out blank on the bench (in a room with an hot fire going) overnight. When I saw what was happening, the next morning,  I put wax on the end, and then quickly finished cutting out the inside. No further cracking has taken place since then.

The following photos show my efforts toward fashioning this lid.

The quartered section as it came off of the log. (Yes, I used a chainsaw)

From here on it is purely hand-tools. Planing the faces smooth

Beginning to hollow out the inside. One of the biggest challenge for this
project is how to hold the thing stable in order to work on it. I am still
trying to come up with plausible theories for that.

A lot of trim work went on with my very ugly, but very functional axe

One thing that was immediately clear was that the lid would have to be
hollowed out before the ends could be cut on the angle or the job of holding
it stable would have been even more difficult 

I cramped it to the corner of the bench and was able to cut the ends off fairly
easily. The inside line represents the inside of the lid, thus you can see the
thickness of the entire lid

Here is a picture of it as I left it back in December

And here, one of many 7th and 8th century relief carvings from which I
sourced my designs from. Just as in the medieval period, I saw things that
had a design that I liked, and I adapted them to my project

I worked on it a bit more today, it actually was not "harder" to carve the
dry timber than what it was carving it "green", but the experience certainly
was quite different. 

The one finished end, except it is not finished because I will wait to trim the
lower edge until I have the box made and can make the top fit it precisely. It
will have a flat edge where it is coming to a point at the moment.

This last picture was taken today, 2 September, 2018. This is more than 9 months after the picture with the tool-wall behind it. As you can see, there is no cracking, and the lid has retained its shape quite well. There is a very slight bow to the sides, but this will be solved on the final trimming of the width. One interesting tidbit is that it weighs almost exactly the same as it did three weeks after I had hollowed it out, which means most of the drying had already occurred before I left. To me, this seems to confirm my theory as to the reason that this shape of lid was designed, to go right along with an hollowed out chest back in the ancient forgotten chapters of history when people first came up with such a method of making a chest. Because it had a pleasing form, the design persisted for more than three thousand years even though many other methods had been developed to make the same shape.

Monday, July 9, 2018

A Short History of the Acanthus Leaf

As regular readers will have noted by now, I work a lot in both 18th century rococo style and in medieval styles, (where my true passion lies); some people might find this odd and think there is no connection between the two styles. Having spent a lot of time working with both of them, however, I realise that they actually do have a lot in common.

Over the centuries scores of literary works related to the design, origin, and style of the acanthus have been written and it is not my intention to add anything to what has already been done because I am quite sure I have nothing more to add. I simply want to show the natural evolution and continuity of the form over the course of history.

Detail of a 3rd century BC acanthus and flower base to a Greek column now
on display in the Louvre

Supposedly, the acanthus as an inspiration for ornament, had its origins in 5th century BC Greece. According to legend, as expounded by Vitruvius (1st century BC Roman author and historian) Callimachus (5th century BC Greek architect and sculptor) saw a basket which had an Acanthus Mollis plant growing around it and a tile on top, and this inspired the now famous form of the Corinthian Capital; which, of course, has acanthus leaves as its main ornamental motif. It would seem, however, that the plant soon gave inspiration to the ornamentation of more than just capitals, as can be seen by the column base from the 3rd century BC, pictured above.

Louis XIV ornament from Versailles; this ornament has a direct connection
with the ornament more than two thousand years prior, as pictured above
and was the the last in the evolutionary link leading up to the Rococo stlye

Most art histories will tell you that the forms of Greco-Roman art were "rediscovered" in the 14th century, which gave rise to the Italian, and then European wide Renaissance. (Which evolved into Baroque and the Rocco art, respectively) There are many problems with this notion, however, because the Greek and Roman ruins were scattered all over Europe, only gradually disappearing due to re-use and other ravages of time, never wholly being obliterated. Medieval artists had plenty of Classical inspiration to choose from, when and if they chose. The 1st century Roman "engaged" column, pictured below, is a good example; it was re-used as a door jamb during the Middle Ages. One can find nearly inexhaustible references to this basic motive throughout the medieval period, interpreted by each generation according to their own sense of "modern" taste and inventiveness.

Roman relief of the 1st century AD, now in the MET
12th century
scrolling ornament

The above picture, which is from the side of an altar, now in the Louvre, is a direct artistic evolutionary continuation of the Roman example pictured above. Over time, the leaves changed and birds and figures replaced the original flower at the centre of the design, but this is an evolution of the same idea, as seen through the eyes of 11th and 12th century artists. Other variations on the same theme can be seen in the following two illustrations as well.

12th century acanthus capitals from Saint-Guillhem-le-Desert
now in the Cloisters, New York

Detail of a 6th century marble column from
Toulouse, now in the Louvre

Supposedly the Romans added the curled heads to the Greek acanthus leaf, giving us the style that we are most familiar with today. I am not sure how true that statement is, because there is some curling to the design pictured at the beginning of this article. There is also a 4th or 3rd century BC Greek funerary urn that I photographed, which has a somewhat curly form to it as well. (pictured below)

4th or 3rd century BC base of a Greek funerary urn. North Carolina Museum
of Art

The leaf of this urn is very much in keeping with the style of those on the 6th century column, the 9th century ivory plaque, pictured below, and the 12th century capitals, shown above and below. This form of the acanthus had a long and variegated history, but it is almost always recognisable as having the same pedigree. 

Detail of  Carolingian ivory, now in the Cloisters

End of a 12th century compound capital now in the Cloisters

There was another form of the acanthus, however, (with pointed "spiky" leaves) which also had prominent use, but more commonly in the Greek and Byzantine sphere of Europe, than in the western lands. Many examples, both Medieval and Classical, exist, and this form also continued through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, as demonstrated by the column segment shown below.

An engaged capital of 9th century Byzantine form, now in the Louvre

An early 16th century renaissance column
now in Philadelphia Museum of Art

It was the curly headed version that was the most common throughout most of Europe, and the form which carried on into the 18th century rococo period.

Crest of a 15th century altarpiece, now in the Cloisters

Detail of a renaissance tapestry, now in the MET

Detail of an acanthus corner on a highly decorated casket, now in Philadelphia

The supposed "unbridled" exuberance of the 18th century French taste had many previous incarnations, as demonstrated by the Roman painting from Pompeii, (2nd illustration, below) the curled and playful leaves of the Romanesque period, and the late Gothic, "flamboyant" style of the 15th and 16th centuries. (3rd and last picture, below)

Part of a Stained glass border; French ca. 1200 Now in Philadelphia

Detail of a wall painting from Pompeii, now in the MET

15th century frieze, carved in wood, now in Philadelphia

18th century acanthus ornament from Chateau Champs-sur-Marne

Late 15th or early 16th century tapestry, now in the Cloisters

In art nothing is ever really new, and everything draws inspiration from what came before. In decoration, there has always been a sense of coming and going of fashion, and ornamentation has a very cyclical nature. Things turn up again and again, and motifs fall in and out of popular favour to a greater or lesser degree, but nothing ever really disappears. The Gothic style "fell out of taste" in the 16th century, but can still be found in some places into the 17th; by the middle of the 18th century it had its first "revival", and has been in and out of fashion ever since. Likewise, the rococo style fell out of favour around the time of the French revolution, but by the 1840's was being produced again in fashionable circles, and in fact, in provincial France, the style never ceased to be appreciated.

(all photos for this article are my own, taken on various museum visits in the past couple of years)

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