This is an excerpt from “The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years: Volume IV” published by Lost Art Press.
From the earliest pre-historic ages man has tried to express himself in some form of decoration, first in flint and then in wood. To a large extent he is dated and the degree of his culture determined by what he has left to trace his existence.
Woodcarving has been a feature in every civilisation, and all through the centuries we find that days, weeks and often months might be spent on the knife decoration of some weapon, tool, paddle, or domestic utensil. It is interesting to note, however, that, when carving first became a recognised craft in Europe, it was devoted to church woodwork long before it reached the humble home. In our own country little carved furniture can be traced further back than the sixteenth century although many earlier church coffers, chests, and seats with carved decoration are to be found.
Just, too, as woodwork design was borrowed from models in stone, the carpenter in his carving followed the prevalent Gothic mode. Early Tudor carving is almost exclusively Gothic in character (Fig. 1, A and B). Occasionally we find crude representations of figures, or of horses, deer, or birds, and sometimes a medallion with a bas-relief head; but as a rule the carver, timid of freedom, restricted himself to geometrical patterns (Fig. 1, C, D, E). Of these there is a great variety, many showing marked ingenuity, but it was not till the Elizabethan period that we have something of the freedom indicated in the type of design shown at F. The “linenfold” panel had been common from an earlier period, but in Elizabethan times cupboards, buffets, four-post bedsteads were freely carved, the bulbous form of pillar and leg (Fig. 3, K) being a feature of the period.
Throughout the different periods it is instructive to note how well adapted the decorative carving was to the general design. In early Tudor days the carpenter trusted largely to simple incised work or gouge cuts, and little was attempted in the way of modelling. Even during Queen Elizabeth’s time carving was kept in low relief, and it was not till the somewhat heavier Dutch influence was felt in the Jacobean age that we find bolder scroll and leaf work.
Mouldings were freely carved, their differing contours offering scope for individual enterprise. As the tool kit developed work tended to become more delicate, till in time certain cabinet makers specialised in carving. The amazing work of Grinling Gibbons in the the seventeenth century may be regarded as exceptional. Influenced by Italian and French modes he was, in a sense, before his time, and no other English woodcarver has ever reached his fame. The brothers Adam introduced a new technique towards the end of the eighteenth century, and their delicate husk festoons and pendants in conjunction with graceful vases, paterae and fluting are more typically British than any other form of decoration bequeathed to us (see Fig. 2).
Has the carver disappeared? Practically so—at least for the moment. During the nineteenth century he had to rely chiefly on the designer who, discarding earlier British motifs, showed a leaning towards the conventional and more elaborate Italian models. The introduction of manufactured pressed carvings shocked the purist; and later, when “strip detail” came to take the place of hand-carved mouldings, the craft became suspect. This, with the high cost of labour after the 1914 war, drove the woodcarver from the field—an irreparable loss till, perchance, the world again becomes rich.
Turning. There can be little doubt that, to the potter’s wheel, we owe the origin of wood turning. The earliest form of pole lathe, too, has lingered to the present day and may still be found in our woodlands. In the development of wood turning one point to observe is that it did not follow architectural features in stone so closely as, say, cornices, pediments, and mouldings. The craftsman soon discovered that, in wood, much more was possible than in stone. Thus, unless the design was definitely based on some architectural model, the woodworker struck out on a line of his own. This became more noticeable when domestic furniture came to be decorated. On ecclesiastical woodwork the line of the architectural column, tapering from plinth to capital, was followed; but, even from early Tudor days, we find that, in the case of turned legs, the taper was inverted. This is seen in examples such as A, B, E, G and H at Fig. 3. When, however, the turning took the form of a baluster (see D) the taper was usually reversed, or (as in K) the columnar part kept throughout at the same diameter. This freedom from the rigidity of classical Greek and Roman models has been a feature in turning down through the centuries.
In an article which is a mere sketch it is impossible to do more than indicate the features of different periods. Examples, however, are well worth close study whenever one has the opportunity. Very few people understand the problem involved in planning a graceful piece of turning. Everything depends of line and proportion. One thing to remember is that the diameter is the same from whatever angle the column is viewed. On paper, in elevation, a 2 in. square leg looks the same as a turned one of 2 in. diameter; but, when seen from an angle in the finished piece, the turned one appears to be only about two-thirds as heavy as the other. This the designer often overlooks, although he is more apt to make the square leg too heavy than the turned one too light.
The early craftsmen played for safety, and thus in Tudor, Elizabethan and early Jacobean days we find turnings of the “bulbous” type which bordered on the heavy side. A change emerged during the reigns of William and Mary and Queen Anne, till, later, Sheraton gave us examples which, in delicacy, have never been surpassed. Early Stuart work came largely under Flemish influence, but the typical Jacobean “twist” turning, continued through Queen Anne’s reign, gave us a form which has ever since been popular. The nineteenth century failed to produce any new pleasing model, the tendency being to accumulate members without any real meaning. Mass production rather cheapened the craft, furniture makers finding it easier to purchase a set of stock legs than to turn new ones from designs of their own. For this reason it is well to keep before us the old models in which every detail was considered in its relation to the whole piece.