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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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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