On my day off from teaching at David Savage’s shop, David and his wife, Carol, insisted on taking me over the border to Cornwall to see Cotehele, a fantastic family home on the Tamar River that has been remarkably unchanged for more than 400 years.
The house had some remarkable original furniture, including six collapsible tables that they suspect were made on-site. But I have only 15 minutes to write this so we’re going to look at the workbenches in the house’s workshops.
Cotehele House was built about 1300 and rebuilt by three generations of the Edgcumbe family between 1485 and 1560. The house is mostly Tudor, and is largely untouched since its last remodeling in the 1650s.
The workshops on display are recreations, as is typical in historic properties. So don’t make too much out of where the benches are sitting or what’s on them. In the saddler’s shop they had two workbenches. One was clearly a woodworker’s bench that looked very similar to Peter Nicholson’s drawing of one circa 1800.
The bench has had a hard life. One interesting aspect of the bench is that when you stand before it, you cannot easily see the rear apron, just like in Nicholson’s “Mechanic’s Companion.” But the apron is there.
But what isn’t there are the “bearers” under the top that Nicholson discusses. Still, the bench seemed sturdy enough to still work on. Some people might think it a bit low – my guess is that it’s 27” or 28” high. The benchtop was about 10’ long.
In the wheelwright’s shop they had a second Nicholson-pattern bench on display, this one is interesting because of the storage lockers built into either end. You access the lockers from doors at the ends. What’s interesting about this particular bench was the lack of holes for anything – pegs, holdfasts etc.
This bench was a bit taller than the one shown in the saddler’s shop. But it was also about 10’ long.
There was lots more to see in the house, but that will have to wait for another day. I’ve got a tool chest to finish.
Marco Polo is one of my heroes. That’s him and his fellow travelers on my favorite map the Catalan Atlas of 1375 by Abraham Cresques.
I enjoy tales of adventure whether it is the real life wanderings of Marco Polo or Ibn Buttata, the mythical adventures in the Odyssey, the Argonautica or Samurai Champloo. The last week has found me on the Silk Road following fables about monkeys and carpenters. It all started while trying to track down the illustrations of a caravan from a 13th century manuscript that had nothing to do with monkeys. Instead, I came across this image from 1222 CE and wondered why was a monkey apparently not helping a sawyer.
In short order, through the digital libraries of a dozen countries, I was tracing a set of fables and lessons from India, across the Middle East, the Iberian Peninsula and into the rest of Europe. I was following a monkey interfering with the work of a carpenter.
The genealogy of the curious monkey starts in India with the Panchatantra, a collection of parables composed in Sanskrit around 100-500 CE, with animals as the main characters. The stories are filled with jackals, lions, birds, turtles, cats, mice, monkeys and a few more species. At some point illustrations were added. As the written collection of stories moved along the trade routes they caught the attention of scholars leading to translations in Pahlavi (Middle Persian), Syriac and Arabic. After arrival on the Iberian Peninsula an Arabic version was translated to Hebrew and this led, in Italy, to the translation into Latin.
The path of the translations (and the monkey) was by no means linear, more like a spider’s web, and as the stories were translated some were altered or left out, while other collections of stories, such as the Fables of Bidpai (or Pilpay), were added. You might even find some of the stories from the Panchatantra in later versions of Aesop’s Fables. The names of a particular collection varied with the translation and includes, Kalila wa-Dimna, The Fables of Bidpai, The Lights of Canopus and the Latin translation, Directoriun Humanae Vitae (Guide for Human Life). During my digital travels I read the monkey’s fable in French, Italian and 16th century English, bumbled through the Latin and hacked my way through the Catalan and Spanish translations.
The actions of the animals in the fables cover the full range of human interactions and the consequences of those actions. The illustrations, from simple line drawings to paintings using the finest pigments, are not just decoration but an important part of of each story. As the writings were translated so were the illustrations. In my wanderings through more than a thousand years of storytelling there is a remarkable consistency in the illustrations, whether the monkey is alone or with the carpenter. With the availability of many digital manuscripts that consistency made my search for the monkey’s misadventures that much easier.
So, what was the story of the monkey and the carpenter? It is a short tale with dire consequences for the curious monkey (and his tail or other body parts). A monkey watches as a carpenter is splitting a log or plank; to aid his work the carpenter uses wedges. After the carpenter stops and leaves for lunch/tea/other necessary things the monkey jumps onto the log and intrigued by the wedges tries to remove them. In doing so he: gets his “tender parts” or his tail, or leg, or paw stuck in the cleft. The monkey’s suffering ranges from great pain to death. On his return the carpenter does not show pity, instead he adds to the pain and demise of the monkey. A grim story and you can draw your own lessons about curiosity, consequences, compassion and the disposition of your body parts while splitting logs.
Besides finding some new (old) images for the LAPAWS (Lost Art Press Archive of Woodworking Stuff) this trip along the Silk Road reminded me of how important the trade routes were in moving and introducing new commodities and ideas. In our time the trade routes we travel are the digital scans of written documents, websites and blogs. We discover and preserve our histories and perhaps learn a new thing or two.
The images in the gallery below range from before the 10th century to 1915. The earliest is a terracotta plaque showing the monkey on a log from the story in the Panchatantra (apologies-no clearer photo was available). Some illustrations are in better shape than others and you will see a range of artistic ability.
My favorite proverb for the tale of the monkey and carpenter is from a copy of the Panchatantra, “What business of monkeys is carpentry?”
Early price sheets, notes on shop practice and shop drawings from the early 18th century are quite rare. So it’s a bit amazing to see that Swann Galleries in New York City will be selling documents from joiner John Widdifield (1673-1720), who was one of the first Philadelphia furniture makers to offer pieces in the William & Mary style.
The documents include stuff we’d all like to see. I mean, good God, man. This is stuff that is only 25 years after Joseph Moxon (the first English-language book on woodworking). Here is a bit from the auction description:
The first 26 pages are devoted to sets of measurements and prices for furniture forms ranging from clock cases to stools, cradles to coffins. He also includes sketches of three pieces: a spice box, a scrutoire (writing desk), and a “chest of wallnutt drawers upon a fraime.”
On the verso of page 2 he records detailed instructions for keeping his tools at optimal sharpness.
And for the finishing nerds:
The second section is titled “The Arte of Coloring, Staining & Varnishing According to My Owne Experience.” It includes recipes for numerous types of varnishes; pages 65 and 72 include directions for the japanned lacquers which were becoming popular in that era. Page 71 gives directions for a finish “to put on maps on fraimes or boards.”
The auction is Sept. 17. Previews of the auction items are listed on Swann’s web site here. The pre-sale estimate is $15,000 to $25,000. No I won’t be there, and no, I won’t be bidding. But if any of you pick this up I know a publishing company that would be happy to consider republishing it.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Hat tip to Suzanne Ellison for sending me the auction listing.
We’ve just received our shipment of “By Hound & Eye” – the cartoon workbook that will open your eyes to the hidden geometry behind excellent furniture.
The shipment is early – way early. We were expecting it in mid-September. And so we are going to end our special pre-publication offer early as well. (Sorry. FYI, when a book is late, we extend the pre-publication offer.)
So if you want a copy of “By Hound & Eye” with a free download of the book, you have until Sept. 4 to order. After that, the free pdf will not be available.
If you ordered a copy of “By Hound & Eye,” it will be packed up Monday and sent via SmartPost, which can take five to seven business days. We’ve also shipped out copies to all our retailers. We don’t know when they’ll add them to their stores, so keep a sharp eye out.
I haven’t seen the physical printed book (I’m in England right now). but I’m very much looking forward to seeing our first softcover workbook.
During our four-year odyssey of documenting the cabinet and workbench, we also shot high-resolution video of the process, including a complete video of us unloading the cabinet.
For the last few months, woodworker and multimedia artist Ben Strano has been assembling all of our footage into a coherent narrative that covers Studley’s life, the construction of the cabinet, the tools and our adventure in documenting it for the book.
The result is a 1 hour 13 minute documentary on the cabinet that features author Don Williams, photographer Narayan Nayar and – most importantly – the cabinet and workbench.
It is a surprisingly engaging documentary, and I say that as a Studley-weary veteran who was there for every frame of the shoot. Strano edited our footage into something that is eminently watchable and features an original soundtrack of period-appropriate piano music (more on that in a future post from Ben).
The DVD will be released on Sept. 25 – the first day of Woodworking in America. We will offer it for pre-publication sales (with free shipping) within the next week or so. And we will also offer it as a streaming video for international customers or those who don’t wish to own a physical DVD.
The DVD will be $20. The streaming video will be $18.
In addition to the documentary, customers who purchase the video will receive a video showing the unloading of the entire cabinet set to music (it will liven up your next party). This footage is nice because it shows a separate still photo of every tool after it is removed from the cabinet.