Sunday, December 20, 2015

Carved Moulding - Part III

This posting will be mostly pictures. This job has been consuming all my time. I have a helper, who is working hard, and I have been working 12-16 hour days, yet we still have a lot of work left to do.

Here are some pictures to show the progress so far.

Most of the moulding in this room was purchased, but I did carve and cast
some of the pieces. I also carved the columns.

The plaster walls are done in a fresco technique, as in, the colour is added to the plaster. The paint on the mouldings and the columns is milk paint. I prefer to use it, because it has a much more "old" look to it than modern latex paints. The secret to beautiful paint is that it is not uniform and sprayed or rolled on, which gives it a much more natural and slightly varied look. Not everyone likes this sort of approach, but I am happy that these clients do.

The main act to this entire project was to re-do this hallway. I forgot to
insert the card into the camera again when I was taking the "before" pictures
so this is the earliest shots I have. I have already added panel frames below the
chair rail, added a new baseboard cap and plastered some of the walls

Although I have been doing a lot of carving for this job, plaster casting of the carvings are what are actually going onto the walls. Below is a group of sets of lower corners.

10 of the 11 sets of corners needed for this project;
carving this many copies would have gotten boring

As of Friday, nearly all of the castings have been applied to the walls, the main thing that remains is all the straight moulding to connect the decorative elements together.

View looking into the library. To the right, one sees
the beginnings of the columns, as well as the
moulding over the arch 

The arched moulding was made by an old technique of making a form and passing it over the wet plaster to create the shaped moulding. I will feature that work in another blog if I can get my helper to take the pictures as I do it. I still have several more to make.

A close up of a large crest. These extensions are the pieces I carved whilst
exhibiting at the York Art Festival. The central section is the same as for
the smaller panels, except the outermost leaves have been removed.
Final cleanup of the attaching plaster still needs to be done.

Another section of wall is shown below.

Wall section to the left of the dining room; this
section has the nicest configuration with two
small fields flanking one large one.

Carving is the main focus of this project, and this weekend I have been busy with some more. The good thing about doing so much carving is that I am getting a little faster at it. Below are the elements which will combine to create the lower centre section to the large fields. I carved them individually because it will be easier to cast them without breakage, which has been a problem on some of the thinner segments.

The left-hand leaf and three linking segments

The same pieces, three hours later

Centre section and the right-hand leaf; ready for carving

All done and ready to make the moulds now

I did not show the two extension for the centre crest before, so here they
are, along with the pieces I carved this weekend

Stay tuned to see how these all fit together in the project...

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Reflections and Thoughts

This post was to have been done last week, but since I had been away at the show a week before, I was behind on my job, and had to work last Sunday in order to try to catch up a bit, and keep the client happy.

The show I was at was called the York Folk and Fine Art Show, in York Pennsylvania. If I went there to make any money, it was pretty much a waste of time. However, since I went there mostly in hopes of "getting my name 'out there'", more, perhaps I had some impact. Mostly, though, it is my intention in this post, to pass on some observations that I made regarding crafts and the people who do them, whilst attending the show.

Let the show begin...

The first thing, which I have been noting more and more in the last four years that I have again tried to get into some sort of show circuit, is the average age of those involved. At 48 years of age, I was the 'kid on the block', as in, out of some 80+ exhibitors, there were only two, who were younger than myself. (both furniture makers also.) There was a wide range to the variety of arts and crafts at the show, but the common thread throughout, was that the artists were almost all in their mid 50's to 80's. (This fact helped me to realise I still have a lot of mileage left in me; since I began this career about 20 years ago, I guess I am just getting warmed up actually.)

Doing a little bit of demonstration to pass the time

I do not like to sit and do nothing at a show; I prefer to work at something, which demonstrates what it is that I do, for anyone interested in seeing the work in action. This also allows me to get some work done on whatever project I happen to be working on at the time. In this case, it was more of my moulding project; I finished two more sections whilst attending this show. I also got a bit more carved on my 9th century box.

I was able to finish a couple more sections of my
rococo moulding project

Back to the topic of my musings, the second thing that I noticed, was how few young people were in the crowd who attended. At the Waterford Show that I do, there were more kids, but even there, the vast majority of the visitors to the show were over 45. This makes me wonder who is going to pick up the mantle when those of my generation are no longer able to continue. Perhaps by then, there will not be anyone left alive who even cares?

This past week, a client sent me a picture of a console table with the subject line of "what do you think?"

What am I supposed to think. What I think is that it is no wonder the craft shows keep getting smaller and less people attend them, either as exhibitors or customers. Think about the implications of this table. If an artist were really on top of his game, working quickly and efficiently, it would still take most of a week to produce this table (based on an 8 hour work day) That would come out to 48.60$ per day, or 7.32$ per hour, but that is not even the amount one would get, because he would still have to buy the wood. Assuming one made it out of the cheapest wood available, here in America, (poplar) which sells for about 2.50$ per 'board foot' (the way timber is sold in the country) it would cost a bit north of 50$ for the timber, then there would be hardware, stain, and varnish on top of that, the final material cost for this table would be close to 100$. When one considers this, the real question should be, why would anyone deliberately sell something so cheaply? I understand that it is produced in China, and labour costs are much cheaper there, but a lot of the timber for pieces like this is actually sent from here to there to be worked and then returned. Even if it does cost little to produce, what does one gain from selling it so cheaply?

This table is for sale on Wayfair for 293$ I hope readers can recognise the
difference between it and my work

In order to make money selling a product this low, a company would have to sell thousands, if not millions of them, to make any money. To make it worse, the company which is selling this table, is a publicly traded company, whose stock is currently worth more than 45$ per share. I am sure the President and CEO are making a bit more than 7.32$ per hour.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing particular against capitalism and people finding a need and filling it, or even getting rich in the process, but by selling cheaply made products at such ridiculous prices, it ruins the game for most everyone else. It is a race to the bottom, and the consumer, not knowing any better, wonders why he should buy a table for 5 or 6 thousand dollars when he can get one for less than 300$. In the end, however, all the companies competing with each other for business keep slashing the prices further, trying to "capture market share" and wind up not making any profit and going bust.

I know of at least 4 large retail stores which sold this type of furniture in the area where I live, which have gone out of business in the past two years. It seems that even at 293$ not enough people are interested in a table to keep the business going. What happened to the notion of communities supplying the majority of the labour needed to support their own economies? In those days, there were lots of young people who were eager to learn trades, crafts and skills, because they could provide for their families by doing so. Now it seems that nearly everyone still doing this type of work is retired and doing it "for fun".

I attended a class with Peter Follansbee about a month ago at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking; there were three other classes going on at the school at the same time, and nearly everyone in attendance was either retired or past retirement age. Back in January, I attended a workshop at Colonial Williamsburg, same thing there as well, I was again the lone "kid" in the crowd.

I hope it is not all doom and gloom for artists like myself who have a passion for creating things by hand, but somehow, we have to get more people interested in understanding what we do, and why it is valuable, or we will all be gone the way of the Dodo Bird; and the kids will not even know that it happened, because they are all bent over some electronic gizmo doing who-knows-what, (certainly not creating anything).

A collection of my work, representing thousands of hours, as well as a
big part of my heart and soul; from a Chinese import store the lot would
probably sell for a couple grand.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Table, Part X; Finished (Mostly)

It has quite some time since I posted anything about this table, and people have been asking me when it would be finished. It was actually done in August, but the clients were out of the country at the time. Basically, their schedule and mine did not agree for an earlier delivery time. I did deliver it a few weeks ago, but forgot to take my camera with me. These pictures were kindly taken and sent to me by the client. I just wanted to share them for anyone hoping to see the end of this project.

In this picture it is plain to see the reason for the table's unusual shape

A view of one of the feet

Another view

In the title of this blog I said that the table was "mostly" finished;
That is because the chairs for this table are not of a conventional
height and the table must be raised 50mm. I will make some additional
feet to attach to the underside of these bases. 

This weekend I am exhibiting at a trade show in York Pennsylvania, and will be posting about that next week.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Furniture in the Salerno Ivories

Whenever I have free time, I usually spend it doing research on some aspect of the Middle Ages; this mostly falls into the more specific topic of furniture and furnishings of that time period. I study by examining pictures, reading books, and occasionally going to museums. (I would love to go more often, but time and budget affect that possibility considerably.

In preparing my recent post on the topic of stools in the Middle Ages, I came across a picture of a stool depicted in an 11th century ivory plaque from Salerno. I was intrigued by this picture, so I did a bit of investigation and found a book written on these ivories, and their history and cultural context, as understood by Robert Bergman, after he had conducted several years of research and study on them. In fact, the book I bought, The Salerno Ivories, was an outgrowth of his thesis on the topic.

In this posting, I want to examine the furniture depicted in these fascinating little ivory panels; in a future post I will compare these depictions with other artwork and actual objects which I believe are of the type depicted herein. I took all the pictures from my book, and have mostly only shown the furniture; should you want to see the rest of the ivories, I suggest you buy the book, as I did.

A throne chair and a foot stool

The furniture type which is most frequently depicted is the throne chair, for more of which, see this article. There are no two chairs depicted alike, even if the same person is portrayed sitting on them (which is only the case with King Herod).

Adoration of the Magi; another throne chair
and its surrounding baldachin 

King Herod, from the Massacre of the Innocents

King Herod again, this time visited by the
Magi. Notice the differences in this throne.

There are also, featured in one of the panels, a stool, a bed and a small table. In a previous post I pointed out, and will do so again here, that the bed is not a large platform supported by four spindly legs in its centre, as a literal interpretation of this picture might suggest. The artist was not concerned with depicting things as we see them, but was only interested in compositional harmony and rhythm. He had an interest in showing the turned legs for the bed, but had he carved the scene in a more realistic manner, the legs would be almost completely concealed by the seated figures, besides the fact that he seems to have wished to use the four upright legs as part of the vertical elements of his layout. 

Here is the original picture that sparked my interest in this topic

Another type of seating which has several representations is the plinth chair, which you can read more about here.

In the scene of Pentecost, the disciples are depicted either sitting on plinth
chairs or one long 'plinth bench', the end of which is portrayed on the
right of the plaque. Each figure has his own foot rest.

Three more plinth chairs and a round table
(my apologies for the sideways picture, sometimes
Google does this and I cannot figure out how to
correct it.)

Several other pieces of furniture depicted in the ivories are beds. I have shown four here, and there are actually a couple more in the series, but the details are not clear enough to be worth including them here.

The healed paralytic carrying away his bed

Noah asleep in his bed, after having gotten drunk.

Here is an example of medieval artists not being overly concerned with the details of the story whilst carrying out their creations. In the story of Noah, he was found naked and drunk, but here he is clearly already clothed before his son drapes the cloak over him. Medieval artwork is almost never to be interpreted as accurate depictions of anything, even if it may offer some visual clues.

Another(again, sideways pictured) bed, This one with decorative
turned legs and flared feet
Compare the detail of the doors in this picture with those in the above
picture of King Herod Visited by the Magi

St Joseph dreaming in a bed with bobbin and reel turned sides

And so that is nearly all the panels which have any meaningful depictions of furniture in them, but I want to put one of these pictures here a second time, in case you did not catch the other piece of furniture in it the first time.

A bottle of wine in a cabinet

Here is depicted a small bedside cabinet, with Noah's wine flagon inside. I believe it is intended as a cabinet because of how it is depicted, but I am also aware of a series of Old Testament fresco illustrations in a church in Italy which have similar cabinets beside Abraham's bed; thus giving me additional reason to believe what is pictured here is a cabinet. In one of those paintings, the doors of the cabinet are shown ajar. When I do the second half of this blog topic, I will share that picture for your own comparison.

I have often spoken about the level of detail depicted in the objects portrayed in artwork, as compared to actual decorations of objects, and the fact that artwork almost never shows the true extent of actual ornamentation. No better example of my point can be found than in the following set of pictures of ornamental fragments which originally framed these ivory plaques that we have just examined.

It is the theory of Robert Bergman, who spent several years studying these ivories, that these panels were originally part of a set of doors. As such, these ornamental bands would have formed the framework to the door panels. By looking at these decorative strips, we can get a better idea of the ornament which could have been used to decorate the sides of beds and chairs, or the legs of tables and cabinets. The remains of at least three medieval chairs, all older than these 11th century ivories, still exist, and all of them have the same degree of carved ornamentation to their structural elements. All of the decorations in the portrayed furniture are merely 'X's', zick-zacks, hatching, and dots, but this is due to the small scale of the carving. All of these ivory panels are only 90-120mm wide and to depict any accurate detail of a piece of furniture which is in an area of only 10 or 15mm would be nearly impossible, as well as being pointless. The people for whom these panels were made, already knew what beds, stools, chairs, cabinets, and tables looked like; it is only us, some 1000 years later who clamour for more information.

Several sections of ornamental carving which belong to this set of ivories

Videre Scire

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Carved Moulding, Part II

I seem to keep doing the same thing of forgetting to put the memory card back into the camera, over and over, which is making me nuts. This time I did it with an even more spectacular twist. I attended a woodworking shop with Peter Follansbee at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking (a fun place that turned out to be) and discovered, on day four, that all the pictures which had been taken at the workshop, the pictures of my carving of the moulding from the week before I left, and the pictures I took when I delivered the table just before I left, were all figments of my imagination, because the card had not been in the camera for two weeks. To top it off, when I left the workshop, I forgot the camera, and had to have it shipped to me this past week. Thus, there has not been much to post on this blog.

The staff at Marc Adams' were very kind and they took care of getting the camera to Fedex so it could be shipped. I now have it back, and can show the few pictures I did manage to get of the carved moulding project. This is what I have been working very intensely on for the past few weeks, (with the interim break for the workshop) so have been extremely busy. This past week I have been doing a lot of installation on the job.
One corner done and its twin in the works

I will post some more pictures of this project once some parts of the installed moulding are finished so people can actually see what it is I am doing with these.

Top half of the upper corners, the lower half of these must be carved from
pieces of timber that have the grain running the other way

Upper crest carving. The larger panels will use this central motif, but will
have additional carvings on both sides to make the overall design longer

I am always advocating using hand tools, but in some cases, where the use of machines would not affect the outcome of the final product, (for example, if I buy timber from the sawmill, it has been cut by machines, but it is rough and must still be worked with a plane to create furniture) I sometimes use machinery. This was the case for re-sawing the timbers which I used to split the plank for cutting out the carved sections. The band saw I used however, is not large enough, and therefore I had no choice but to do this piece by hand; good thing I know how!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The (Long and complex) Medieval History of the Chair - part IV, Stools or Forms

This discussion in the ongoing series of medieval seating objects could potentially get very complicated if I were to attempt to address all the variations in form, material, and construction of the types of stools found depicted in the artwork, and the few actual surviving examples. I am therefore going to go over the topic with a rather broad brush of generalisations, and leave the minutia for potential future posts.

Stools are often referred to in old English as both "stoole" and "form". I am curious to know if it was called a 'form' because sitting in one would doubtless help one maintain a good 'form' of seating posture, as it would be hard to slouch whilst sitting on one, but I have not found any definitive information to support that notion. The doctor has further confused the meaning of "stool", because when he asks me for a sample, he does not expect me to bring him back a piece of furniture; though again, that must originate from the fact that there was once a "close stool", which was a chair with a pot in the seat...

A stool and other furniture depicted in the late 7th century Codex Amiatinus

In a previous post, we already discussed plinth chairs; these are not stools, even though modern readers might think of them as such. In defining a stool, we are using, here, the definition of a form of seating with a seat and an open base, as in, not a box or other solid, enclosed structure underneath. Generally, if it is not at least partially open beneath the seating surface, we will not be classifying it as a stool.

As with other types of furniture, I like to give a bit of pre-medieval history on the topic so one can see where the medieval pieces fit into the long evolution, and also to show how styles may have, (or not) changed. With that in mind, below are three examples from some of the ancient civilizations that influenced and affected the Roman and subsequent medieval European furniture.

13th century BC Stool from the Cairo Museum
(picture found on a Google image search)

9th century Hittite sculpture depicting a king seated on a stool
(picture found on a Google image search)

Portion of the Acropolis freeze from Athens; 4th century BC showing
four figures seated on stools
(From Wikipedia)

The Illustration at the beginning of this post featured a stool from almost the very onset of the Middle Ages, and in construction details, is not unlike the Hittite example which was already 2,000 years old at the time that the manuscript from which it comes from was made.

All of these stools fall into the category of four legged stools, but there was also another type, which was a folding "X" type. This design too, has a very ancient pedigree, and examples are found in Egyptian, Minoan, and Greek art. In addition, we have many examples of bronze Roman era stools of this type. 

These folding stools could be constructed of wood or metal, and were found throughout Northern Africa, the Middle East, and all parts of Europe. There have even been several BC era wooden examples recovered from graves and peat-bogs of northern Europe. I will not get into more details on this topic because the St Thomas Guild blog has already covered this form in great detail. You can read more about the medieval varieties on their blog. I will add this one example, however, from a 9th century manuscript, because they did not discuss metal varieties of this chair, several examples of which also exist.

BNF Lat. 17968 fol 125v; depiction of a folding iron stool from the
9th century

Having gotten that bit out of the way, there is still a huge variety in the style, methods of construction, and level of ornamentation of the fixed leg stools. It would be impossible to give an exhaustive synopsis of even all the known examples of depictions covering an entire continent and a thousand years of history, but even if we did, that would only be a fraction of what was actually produced, as so much has been lost to the ravages of time.

When one considers history which is hundreds or thousands of years old, he must first accept that whatever he gleans in information is a pale reflection, at best, of the vivacity and variety of actual life in those times. A word, a phrase, an illustration, all give us tantalising hints, but hints are all they are, and must be regarded in that light.

Those hints tell us that there were three four and even five legged stools. There were stools with carved and sculpted ornamentation as well as others which were of the turned variety. Still others were constructed of flat timbers which could be left plain in form, or decorated by shaping and or carving. As in all other types of furniture, peasants and poor people would have simpler versions than their financially more fortunate compatriots. Since medieval artwork is almost always primarily concerned with the general shape of an object, not its exact appearance, this is not always readily discernible to the modern viewer of such artworks.

Below are some examples of various stools taken from different periods of medieval history, but are in no way intended to suggest that any particular design was circumscribed to that time period. I have one illustration for each of the centuries comprising the millennium, known to us as the Middle Ages. I have shown a variety of styles of construction as well as a wide range in ornament, detail and material. (the 7th century is represented by the first illustration in this blog-post)

I have to cheat a bit for the 6th century,
This is a reproductionof a stool found in one of the many
 Alamani Graves in the Oberflacht region. I recently did
 a post on other furniture found in this region,
also from the 6th century.

St Mathew from the 9th century Lindisfarne Gospel;
Mathew is seated on a wooden stool decorated with carved
ivory panels. (at least that is how I interpret this)

From an astronomy manuscript in the Bavarian State Library
(BSB clm 210 fol 118r) produced in the year 818
This shows a turned stool with legs which extend above the seat and have
knob type finials.

BNF Lat 6, fol 5r 10th century

From the Bibliotheque National de France, comes this small illustration from a 10th century Bible. This is a scene from the story of the life of Samuel; in this scene, the Prophet Eli has just been informed of the wicked acts committed by his two sons, Hophni and Phineus. In shock, the prophet falls backwards off of his chair, here depicted as a seat with legs fit from the underside, perhaps in a through tenon joint, like those found in many 16th and 17th century English stools, but also depicted in 14th, 15th, and 16th century artwork.

Nativity scene
Detail of one of the Salerno Ivories from ca 1080

Here is another turned four legged stool, but notice the degree of ornament suggested in this example. It seems to have a square terminal above the turning where it joins with the seat. Something I would like to point out in this illustration is the way the bed was depicted. The artist wished to show the turned posts for the bed corners, but had he put them where they belonged, from a realistic point of view, they would have been obscured by the bed itself and the figures, thus he chose to depict them seemingly propping it up from underneath, stool fashion. This is a classic example of why we cannot take medieval illustrations at face value; they are simply conveying some information, but are not "photographic depictions". Notice also the little tripod table.

12th century relief with Madonna and Child

I could be wrong, but I believe this is in the Louvre, there is a similar one in the V&A, but the stool in that panel has round legs whilst the panel itself is rectangular. In both cases, the seat seems to be constructed of very massive timbers with a lot of carving. I would expect these to be made in a way much like the still existing 12th and 13th century choir stalls; very thick, solid timber.

Another Madonna and Child, this one from the
13th century

Remember the 9th century stool with knob finials? This is a 13th century version of the same basic idea. I think this is from the Met in New York, but again, I am not 100% certain.

Late 14th century Stool "from a Museum in Paris"
Part of the stretcher and its carving is missing.
(picture found on a Google image search)

St Luke. BL Yates Thompson MS 4 fol 14r ca 1460

Notice the similarity of this drawing and the actual example from about 100 years earlier pictured above.

Furniture obviously evolved and changed over time, but some of the basic fundamental forms persisted for centuries, even millennia, as with the 'x' stool and the three corner stool. Often these forms are obscured by the various decorations that did change with fashion and taste over the centuries, if you examine them from a construction standpoint, though, they remain much the same. It is too bad there are not more pattern books preserved from the Middle Ages, as they would help us a lot in knowing how artists and craftsmen went about ornamenting their wares. Without such knowledge all we can do is study other decorative objects and guess.

Hopefully this post gives some idea of the vast possibilities that exist for this type of furniture and shows that it was something much more than just a simple plank or turned object usually depicted as "medieval" stools. (Just try doing a google image search for "medieval stool" and see how many of the examples I have given here are represented.)

Videre Scire