Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ivory Substitute?

In this post I had hoped to present part II of the History of Chairs, but the weekend schedule is too full to allow time to do that. On Sunday I will be attending an all day seminar presented by Kaare Loftheim, a traditional cabinetmaker whose work I greatly admire. There simply will not be enough time to get everything together for the chair topic. Instead, I will introduce another little project which is now in its embryonic stage.

This project first suggested itself to me in an unusual way, the idea came to me during the process of making some rolling pins from the wood of the holly tree. Holly is a very white wood, and has been used for centuries as inlay, exploiting that characteristic. After I had finished turning, carving, and polishing the rolling pin, it occurred to me that it looked a bit like ivory. I then began thinking that, perhaps, it could be used to create a small box in imitation of the medieval ivory objects one sees in museums.

carved and turned from holly

As anyone who has been following my blog is aware, my favourite period of the Middle Ages, is the 8th and 9th centuries, so it is from that period that I will look for inspiration for my box. Most surviving box type structures, from that period, have a gable roof shaped lid. Though this type is the most common, there are several flat topped examples as well; this is type I intend to make.

Brecia Casket 4th century
(found on the web)

The box pictured above comes from a time a bit before the medieval period began, but the same form still existed in the 9th century, as is evidenced from illustrations in several manuscripts of that era. Another form which seems to have come about, has the corner posts turned round, thus projecting beyond the main body of the box. A 12th century reliquary casket of St Catherine in the St Servatius Church in Quedlinburg Germany has this form, and will be the type model for my box. I have no idea when that form first appeared, but there are a couple other 12th century examples that I know of, so therefore it must have originated earlier than that.

top view, showing the form of the corner posts

These boxes, when carved in ivory, are extremely beautiful; sadly, due to the long-running ban on ivory trade, one cannot use it to make anything. Therefore, if one wishes to make something that looks like ivory, he must find a substitute. Though it is not perfect, I think holly will serve the purpose of providing that substitute. I did a test sample on a scrap that was cut off of the blank used to make one of the rolling pins.

a bit like ivory?

I have subsequently changed my mind about how I intend to ornament the box, so this piece will no longer match the design I have for it, nonetheless it did give me an idea about the challenges of carving this material in a miniature scale. I will probably wind up using it in another box, inset into the surface like the one below.

When one sees these boxes in pictures, they usually fail to comprehend the small size of the objects Ivory is not timber, and one rarely sees ivory panels beyond 140mm wide. Most ivory pieces one sees are between 70 and 100mm, in other words, not much more than the width of three or four fingers. Ivory is a hard material, nearly as much so as bone, therefore, though one cannot cut it with a carving gouge for wood, it can be scraped, which leads to the possibility, in the hands of a skilled artist, to achieve impeccable detail and accuracy. On the other hand, wood is less dense, and and therefore must be cut away in little slivers; it can also be scraped, but must be done so always keeping the direction of the grain in mind. If one goes against the grain, and, or, if the tool is not sharp enough, then the resulting scraping will only produce fuzz and muddle the work. This is why one rarely sees tiny objects carved from wood, and when they are, they are usually done in a very hard wood, such as boxwood, which is crisper, and more easily captures the finer details.

6th century wood and ivory box. I took this picture in the museum.
This end is about 300mm wide, so each ivory panel is only about
60-65 mm in width.
Notice that this box is dovetailed together!

As a substitute for ivory, holly offers a few positive, and a few negative advantages. The fact that it is white, being its chief drawing point. It is not particularly hard, however, so, though it may be easier to cut, it tend to be more difficult to achieve clean and crisp details. Another drawback, is that it has small medullary rays, which are very un-ivory looking, so one must be careful to avoid them. Also, since it is not very hard, it will not take a polish the way ivory will. I am still working on a way to finish it without making a thick layer of varnish and at the same time keeping it as white as possible.

Original inspiration 

My original idea was to make a box ornamented in a 6th century manner, with simple animal and geometric designs. I started with this drawing from one of my books, Early Medieval Designs from Britain. Half way through the test carving, I found a photograph of the actual metal object this drawing depicts. Initially, I had thought to make some sort of motif with these animals along the edge of the lid, but have not found enough variety of figures from the same period and geographic location to make a believable amalgamation of decoration. I do not fancy carving the same design 50 times over. (I tend to get bored carving the same design over and over, even if the end result looks pleasing.)

Sarre Brooch, in the British Musem
the original from which the above drawing was made

I carved the first animal in its entirety, once it was finished I was afraid to start the next one, so left it standing around for a few months. It would have been better to have carved them both at the same time, as this would have produced a more unified look. When I got around to working on it again, it seems my frame of mind was different, as can be seen from the variations in the details, Overall, I guess they look fairly similar anyway.

The first carving, done back in December (I think)

The second animal, carved this week. (I know)
notice the scale for size, these guys are each
less than 40 mm long.

On the first guy, I made a ham-fisted mess of his foot. On the second, the outline shape is too narrow, and cut too deep. (it actually looks worse in this photo!) Somehow, overall, I am still pleased with my first attempts at carving on such a small scale. What it has given me, is a sense of what is needed to create an imitation ivory box. A drawing of it, which I made this morning, is below.

Conceptual rendering of the 9th century style box
it will measure approx. 230x360x250mm

In the latest conception of this box, I intend to use the the First Bible of Charles the Bald, (produced in 845; [BNF Lat 1]) for all the decorative elements. There is enough variety of design to have plenty to chose from, and having all design elements originating from the same source, should give the box a genuine feel. One of the big problems with reproductions made in the Victorian period was that the craftsmen who created them took this element from here, and another part from there, and wound up with a hodge-podge which usually had a distinctly 19th century look to it. My goal is to try to produce something that looks believably 9th century.

Videre Scire

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