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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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Something To Be Said For the "Good Old Days"

This blog has actually nothing to do with furniture or the Middle Ages, or anything else that I usually blog about, but I could not resist posting these two pictures that I saw on the internet, from Ellicott City.

A modern car, so pulverised it is unrecognisable. (actually, modern cars look
so much alike these days that one has to look at the name badge even when
they are completely intact, to see what kind of car they are)

The first is from the recent flood, which occurred only two years after the previous one. (Ellicott City is only about an hour from where I stay when I am in the States) The second picture is from a flood in the same place from 1952.

This picture, from 1952, is at the same bridge, but this view is looking down-
hill, into town, whereas the first picture is from the other side of the bride
looking up-hill away from the town

The point of this post is the comparison of the state of the modern cars in the first picture to that of those in the older picture. (every car I saw from this new flood was in a completely destroyed state) I have to admit that I am a fan of "antique" cars. (my own definition of which are cars from before 1960) and In my opinion they were much better made in many respects. Here is some evidence of that. I would definitely feel safer in the 1952 Buick which is on top of the the other car and only has minimal dents on its side. In fact, every single car in this picture could be started and driven away once they were put back on their wheels. Even the electrical systems were much simpler, and a car that was briefly flooded, once dried out, could be driven without problems, (I know because I had a 1954 Ford that had been in a flood) unlike modern ones which have too many computers that get completely ruined when submerged.

Just a casual observation...

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Furniture From the Utrecht Psalter - Part VII

Time flies and somehow more than five months have passed us by; it is time for the next-to-last installation of the Furniture of the Utrecht Psalter. We have now reached the letters 'S' and 'T' which are for stand and table. We have already looked at round tables, but this time we will be discussing those with  rectangular forms.

A servant returns a wine jug to a round stand next the dining table
after serving the guests in this scene from the Utrecht Psalter

This illustration is so abstract that it is
almost impossible to say what is on
the pedestal, but sculpture and artwork
would often be placed on such objects

Examples of pedestals and stands abound in medieval manuscripts and other artwork, but these mostly serve as candle or ink stands in scenes depicting the Four Evangelists. Unfortunately, like most forms of furniture from the first seven centuries of the Middle Ages, there are no surviving examples; the Utrecht, and Stuttgart Psalters, especially, inform us that there were many forms and uses for stands other than in the scriptorium. We see that, in addition to holding candles and ink, they could be used as a sideboard or serving stand, as a pedestal for a sculpture, (as they still are) and as a base to support artwork.

Essentially a stand, this "Pricina Pillar" serves
as a bowl for the holy water in a church

The forms and ornamentation for these usually followed after contemporary columns of the period and so we can draw some idea for design of them from looking at the holy water fonts in churches, such as this one from St Mary's Chapel, Marlston, a small hamlet some 40km west of where I used to live in Berkshire. It is made of stone, as are all of the others that one will find, still extant. It is probable that many such stone pedestals would have been found in the great houses, castles and palaces as well. It would also stand to reason, however, that wooden examples also existed, and would have been carved or decorated the same as the more permanent stone examples.

Bellow are some other examples from various artworks which demonstrate various forms and uses for pedestals and stands

From an 11th century book cover, in the MET, this stand
serves as a lectern

A relief sculpture in Maastrich  Cathedral, this shows
a servant tending the king; his towel is on a pedestal

From a 10th century ivory book cover
from Metz, this pedestal holds two
seated figures
From Dumbarton Oaks, this 11th century Italian ivory plaque shows a jug
supported on a tripod stand. Such a stand would clearly have been made
of wood. I saw a small example of this design, used to hold a glass, in the
Louvre, when I visited last year
Due to the somewhat loose execution of many medieval artworks, it is sometimes
 difficult to discern if an object was intended to represent a stand with a level top,
or a sloped surface, as one finds on a lectern. In the case with this sculpture,
however, there can be no ambiguity of the artists intention; he depicted both.
This is part of a beautiful late 12th century tympanum on the cloister church
of St Benoit Sur Loire, (Flurey) in France.

There are 13 of these pedestals or stands depicted in the Utrecht manuscript, each of them different from the others, but none of them, as with all of the other furniture illustrated, has any particularly well defined details.

Similarly, there are also seven tables, shown to have a rectangular form, (but usually not having much more detail than that.) All of them have legs on each of the table's four corners; two of them have the addition of a lower stretcher rail in the manner we are familiar with from tables of the 16th and 17th centuries. 

A rectangular table with a lower stretcher connecting the four legs
Another table, a thousand years newer, (but which most people would consider
very old) showing the same basic design
This mosaic from Ravena shows, again, the same basic table design; this
one was three hundred years old at the time of the Utrecht Psalter. 
It seems that this table design had staying power.

There are several factors which make it very difficult to trace the stylistic trends of tables over the course of the Middle Ages. First, as already stated, there are no examples of any table before the 12th century, and very few from before the 16th. Artists used what they wished, to portray the message they intended to convey,but  this is not always the same as depicting stylistic development and trends. One medieval trend, in fact, was to depict tables with no legs at all. This puts an huge gap in what could be a more informed segment of design history, but because from at least the 9th century, into the 13th, most tables are depicted as a flat or moulded plane with an elaborately draped table cloth, which seems to float in space having no legs at all, we are left to ponder what sorts of supports these tables had.

An ivory fragment from an 11th century box, which shows the typical trend
of portraying a table with no legs. This table does seem to show a moulded
frame around the perimeter. (from the Archaeological Museum, Madrid) 

Much is made of the so-called trestle table, and the table set upon donkeys or horses (depending on where your English comes from), which are supposed to have been so common in the medieval period. From the artwork, there is nothing to support the idea that these were the most prolific forms of tables. In fact, the earliest depiction I have found, to date, clearly showing such a medieval table comes from the 13th century. However, there is a Roman sculpture which shows such a table, so, like many other pre-medieval inventions, they must have continued on, un-portrayed in the artwork, all through the "dark ages", until they reemerged at the end, at which time there was a more prolific campaign of illustrating ordinary objects, and we again find them depicted. In other words, just because no one illustrated one, or more precisely, no illustration of one survives, we cannot say that they did not exist. There are dozens of tools (jeweler's tools, and vices for example) and objects which we have no illustrations of, but deductive reasoning tells us that they were there.

3rd century Roman depiction of a flower and vegetable vendor
His table is the familiar "A-frame" table of the late Middle Ages...
...Very much like this table, but without the Gothic ornament.

There is no such table portrayed in the Utrecht Psalter; the other rectangular tables (four of them) simply have four posts at the corners, and one more has cross stretchers at the ends, but no lateral braces.

A table with end stretchers but none running length-wise
A rare example of a table actually depicted with its legs. This one from the
middle of the 12th century and found in BSB Clm 2929

It is a shame that almost no early medieval furniture still exists, and therefore we have no real idea of what a 9th, 10th, or 12th century table would have actually looked like. We can, by studying the artwork however, at least see that our pre-conceived ideas are generally flawed. (I read a "history of medieval furniture" which stated that "early" [in that authors vocabulary, meaning pre-14th century] days, tables were simply "rough planks placed upon tree-trunks".) Even if the manuscripts present no life-like depiction of a table, we may still be able to realise that there were many forms and styles of tables, just as there are now. When we combine that with the knowledge that all objects were decorated and ornamented according to the the station of the person possessing them, and followed stylistic trends, we can begin to gain some insight into the potential appearance of medieval tables as they may have been.

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

From Inspiration To Reality

No one ever made or designed anything in a void, and everything that has ever been made drew inspiration from other things which the artist had already seen. Designing in this way is not the same as copying, which is the simple act of reproducing something that already exists. Sometimes the line between a copy and an inspired design is not so easily discerned. Sometimes we make changes just to make sure that the inspired piece is not an exact copy, and sometimes changes are made to suit the taste of the client.

Last summer whilst in the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Köln, I was deeply attracted to this table and knew that it could make a lovely desk, but I also knew that it would need some modifications to be suitable as such.

A lovely rococo table found in the Museum for Applied Arts, Köln.

The first 'problem' is that the centre ornament hangs too low, and one would hardly be able to sit at it. the second problem is that the size is too small to serve as a desk. With these problems changes had to be made to the size and proportion whilst maintaining the look and feel of it.

I made a full sized rendering of the design in order to work out the size and proportions and to add the details for a drawer in the front as I posted in a previous blog episode.

Design for the desk, drawn full size

Once the design was done it was down to doing the carving and putting it together.

Getting pieces ready

After it was assembled it then had to be finished; first white, then gold leaf, then the real magic of applying a glaze to give both the white and the gold a nice tone.

After application of the gold leaf

Now all the is left is a leather top, but that is still on order so I will have to apply it later.

Finished desk, save for the leather top


Monday, April 9, 2018

Varnished Furniture In the Middle Ages

Not so long ago Steffen and I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see what they had to offer in their medieval collection. The trip there took more than two hours, and we had to be back home at a reasonable time due to the fact that he has a family, so I was mostly taking pictures instead of studying what was on exhibit.

If I have limited time in a museum I tend to operate in a "shoot first, look later" sort of mode. When 'later' came, and I was studying my pictures, I was pleasantly surprised to see a detail that I had never noticed in any paintings before. In this painting, by an anonymous Flemish painter working in the last quarter of the 15th century, I saw evidence of a highly polished furniture surface.

It is amazing what you can find in a painting if you
spend the time to study it

This is important, and I make mention of it, because most people seem to assume that (unpainted) medieval furniture was dull and dry, either entirely unfinished or perhaps only having a single coat of linseed oil, which gives not sort of gloss to the surface.

Zoom one
Zoom 2; here you can see the lines of the drapery reflected in the surface

I looked through pictures of my own furniture and realised that ordinarily, the glossy surfaces that I work so hard to achieve do not really show up very well in photographs. This is important because it would be a detail that someone would probably not ordinarily put into a painting either. Below are a couple pictures of furniture which I know to have a very fine sheen of varnish to them because I made it, but that sheen is not well reflected in the photos.

In the first picture, only the corner of the room causes a reflection line to
the top. The front is every bit as polished as the top is, however. In the second
picture, only the side reveals that the surface is shiny. This box has a very
bright French polish finish, but there is no reflection at all to the top surface
in this Photo. the third picture is of a chest which has a well polished and 
waxed finish, but shows no evidence of such.

Seeing this detail in the painting from Philadelphia, I looked through other pictures to see if I could find further examples which portrayed this characteristic. Sure enough, one of my pictures from the MET had a bench which also exhibited a highly polished surface.

Detail of a painting in the MET
Detail of the detail; here you can see that there are some reflections from the
book and the column behind; this painting represents a bench which would
have a polish every bit as bright and glossy as the one on the box
pictured above.

Cennino Cennini mentions varnish and Theophilus gives two recipes for making it. There is no real difference to his varnish recipe of the 11th century than there is to that which is in a book I have from the late 19th century.

If varnish existed, it must have been used; but for what. In Theophilus' writing he only specifically mentions using it on paintings, metal, and on doors, but it seems to me safe to assume that it would also have been used on furniture, and here are two 15th century examples which clearly show that it was. Once one sees these examples, and knows what he is looking for, there are bound to be others.

Detail of a 15th century painting and a model reproduction of the room

Above is a detail, found in Wikipedia, of the famous Anolfini Wedding, by Jan van Eyke; below it is a picture I found on the web, of someone's model of the room seen in the painting, perhaps used in a dollhouse. I show these two  pictures so that one can see that in the original painting there is actually 
much more highlights to the carving than is visible in the model, which has  a less polished finish. It requires very specific lighting from a sharp angle to achieve any sort of meaningful highlighting to a carved surface, as can be seen from the picture of my carved chest pictured above. It is a shame that I could not find a more clear picture of this painting, because the highlights on it are brighter than they look from this photo, but it definitely represents a varnished chair. Below is pictured a detail of a stool which I made, which exhibits some of the same highlight details from direct overhead light (the sun); much like the direct side-lighting which illuminates the objects in the painting.

A brightly polished piece of furniture under strong
direct lighting shows up the carved edges as white

Knowing what to look for, and allowing for period stylistic trends, I now have more confidence to believe something that I have long suspected, which is that the details in this painting, by an anonymous 13th century Italian painter, exhibited in the Washington National Gallery, also represents an highly varnished chair.

Detail of a painting in the Washington National Gallery

My original reason for believing that this represented a highly varnished chair, when I first saw it 22 years ago, was because of the similarity of the treatment of the highlights on the fabric, which represent silk, and the highlights on the wooden parts. Now that I have seen later paintings which clearly demonstrate a varnished surface, and I know that varnish existed and was used, I have no reason to doubt that this is what is represented in this and other similar 13th century paintings. Much information put into paintings has been lost to us from the changes in painting techniques and the way we see and portray things.

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