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.