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.

Videre Scire

Sunday, March 18, 2018

"Behind the Scene" at Vaux-le-Vicompte

Some 50+ Kilometres outside of Paris is a very lovely Chateau which was built around the middle of the 17th century. It is out in the country to the north-east of the city and by the time one arrives there, it is almost as if he has been transported to a completely different world.

The lane leading to the chateau is quite impressive in itself, lined with 200+ year old Sycamore trees. (Imported to France by soldiers returning from the American wars at of the late 18th and early 19th century they are now all over Europe.) The Chateau itself is behind several stables and other utility buildings and one could easily miss seeing it if they were zipping down the road unawares, (though the large car-park across the road, full of cars, caravans and motor coaches would make that rather difficult to do) but once you enter the premise, the view is quite spectacular.

View of the main residence of the chateau and surrounding moat

Model of the roof structure of the residence

I mainly visited this chateau to see the furniture and interior, but was delighted to learn that for an extra 5 Euros (I think) one can enter a private door, go up a flight of stairs and then a very narrow spiral star which leads to the central tower in the roof. From there you are greeted with a breathtaking aerial view of the chateau and the surrounding countryside. The chance to get up close to some 17th century carpentry work made it worth whatever the price was, and this diversion was a highlight of the trip.

Even utilitarian stair balusters are not completely void of ornamental
detail; note the cast escutcheons at the base of each spindle.

The iron straps were installed in a late 19th century restoration programme

Some details of the woodwork. Note that each beam was sawn and then planed
smooth before being worked into the structure

I was guessing this beam to be about 40cm so I took a picture of my hand
against it to use as a gauge. Based on the hand, it is about 36-37cm square.

View from the tower; there is another similar, but larger wing on the left

The second unexpected surprise to this side trip was a case full of 17th century woodworking tools.

Since I like, use, and make hand-tools, I was particularly happy to find this little collection.

Very large timbers require very large compases

Frame saw

Assorted tools, including a couple moulding planes and a marking gauge
for laying out timber joinery

Gouges, hatchet, and "pinch dogs" used to temporarily hold pieces in place

A saw wrest for setting the teeth of six different saws

Adze heads

Compass, calipers, folding ruler, and a plane

Another view of the plane, as well as an additional one. Also an axe, and a
line real

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Decorations for Utilitarian Objects

I love finding utilitarian objects which have been made beautiful by someone spending more time than was necessary to add ornamentation to them. In the Bauhaus movement, there arose a debate which ushered in a new way of seeing the making of objects, and was summed up with the phrase, "form follows function". This was a way of saying that a tool or object should first and foremost have a shape to it which suits its purpose. I have no problem with that notion, but I have no idea why that thought became licence for everything to be made without any beauty or art left to it. It is my opinion that the best approach to the question of design should be phrased as, "function has form", which is to say that even if it is functional, as it should be, it should also be pleasing to look at, and ornamented as nicely as possible, without sacrificing its usefulness.

To that end, I was delighted last week to see some objects that a long-time Romanian girlfriend of mine sent me from he home country. This type of object is called a "distaff" and they are made by her father-in-law. I was unaware of it, but apparently there is a long tradition all over Europe, Scandinavia, the Balkans and Russia of various forms of this type of artwork.

A "chip carved"spinning distaff made in Romania

A Distaff is an object used to hold the linen (or other) fibers whilst the spinner converts them into threads. It is a very utilitarian object, and came be made as plain and crude as someone wishes, and it will still do its job. I found a photo on Flicker, of two women using a very simple version in some reenactment event. I have no idea who or where they are, so I censored their identity; the purpose of the picture is to show how the object is used.

Two anonymous women demonstrating the traditional
method of spinning with a distaff 

Quite obviously, this tool does not need any decorations to be useful, but look at the following photos and see how much more pleasant such an object becomes when someone is willing to put into it more than the absolute minimum amount of effort necessary for its creation. When an Artist applies a bit of his soul to an object, that object takes on a soul of its own and becomes more than just a tool.

I have seen many beautiful things made in Romania since I first met the friend who sent these pictures in 1999 where she was demonstrating traditional Romanian egg-dying (another very intricate and beautiful art) at the annual Smithsonian Folk-life Festival in Washington DC. I also met a couple woodcarvers at the same time, and was impressed with the carved gate they were making at the time.
It is enjoyable for me to see people who work to keep traditional crafts, such as this, alive, and in so doing, make our modern sterile world a little less boring.

All of these objects have been decorated with what
is known as "chip carving" but this one has the
addition of having a pair of horses carved, a nice
little touch of creative originality.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Method To My Madness

When I was in Europe on my Photography trip last summer I had two agendas. The first was to visit museums and see medieval objects which I knew of (and hopefully some that I did not) and the second was to find 18th century pieces which I could use for my work.

Back when I studied "Interior and Product Design" (furniture) at Berkshire
College of Art and Design, this is how I spent all of every day. It has been
a long time since I did this, but it feels good to be doing it again.

For the nearly two months now I have been working up designs from some of the pieces I saw in the Chateaus I visited in France. I begin with the photographs I took and adapt them to the requirements of a client who wants a pieces similar to the original. Some re-working of the design is necessary due to differences in size or in use of the object. (A desk has different dimensions to an occasional table, for example)

Below are some photos of some of my design work and a couple pictures of the inspirational piece.

An urn in Chateau Champse-sur-Marne.
Mine will be about half the size of this one

Designing is a bit different than "drawing". In
design it is not necessary to draw more than what
is needed, but is is necessary to draw the details
as they would be on a pattern, not as they look
in perspective.

Design for a desk, adapted from a table seen in Köln

The actual table

Some details and proportions needed to be changed so that this could be a
functional desk. One could not put a chair under the table and sit at it because
the centre hangs too low. I also made the front to be a drawer.

Detail of the legs

A box from the MET

Drawing and detail shots of another table, also adapted to serve as a desk.
The same challenge applied to this one, as the centre on the original was
 much too low to be used as a desk.