Arts and Crafts Essays/Of Carving
It is not uncommon to see an elaborate piece of furniture, in decorating which it is evident that the carver has had opportunity for the exercise of all his skill, and which, indeed, bears evidence of the most skilful woodcutting on almost every square inch of its surface, from the contemplation of which neither an artist nor an educated craftsman can derive any pleasure or satisfaction. This would seem to point to the designer of the ornament as the cause of failure, and the writer of this believes that in such cases it will generally be found that the designer, though he may know everything that he ought to know about the production of designs which shall look well on paper or on a flat surface, has had no experience, by actually working at the material, of its difficulties, special capabilities, or limitations.
If at the same time he has had but a limited experience of the difference in treatment necessary for carving which is to be seen at various altitudes, his failure may be taken as sufficiently accounted for.
An idea now prevalent that it is not advisable to make models for wood-carving is not by any means borne out by the experience of the writer of this paper.
Models are certainly not necessary for ordinary work, such as mouldings, or even for work in panels when the surfaces are intended to be almost wholly on one plane, but the carved decoration of a panel, which pretends to be in any degree a work of art, often depends for its effect quite as much on the masterly treatment of surface planes, and the relative projection from the surface of the more prominent parts, as upon the outline. Now, there are many men who, though able to carve wood exquisitely, have never given themselves the trouble, or perhaps have scarcely had the opportunity, to learn how to read an ordinary drawing. The practice obtains in many carving shops for one or two leading men to rough out (viz. shape out roughly) all the work so far as that is practicable, and the others take it up after them and finish it. The followers are not necessarily less skilful carvers or cutters than the leaders, but have, presumably, less knowledge of form. If, then, one wishes to avail oneself of the skill of these men for carrying out really important work, it is much the simpler way to make a model (however rough) which shall accurately express everything one wishes to see in the finished work; and, assuming the designer to be fairly dexterous in the use of clay or other plastic material, a sketch model will not occupy any more of his time than a drawing would.
To put it plainly, no designer can ever know what he ought to expect from a worker in any material if he has not worked in that material himself. If he has carved marble, for instance, he knows the extreme care required in undercutting the projecting parts of the design, and the cost entailed by the processes necessary to be employed for that purpose. He therefore so arranges the various parts of his design that wherever it is possible these projecting portions shall be supported by other forms, so avoiding the labour and cost of relieving (or under-cutting) them; and if he be skilful his skill will appear in the fact that his motive in this will be apparent only to experts, while to others the whole will appear to grow naturally out of the design. Moreover, he knows that he must depend for the success of this thing on an effect of breadth and dignity. He is not afraid of a somewhat elaborate surface treatment, being aware that nearly any variety of surface which he can readily produce in clay may be rendered in marble with a reasonable amount of trouble.
In designing for the wood-carver he is on altogether different ground. He may safely lay aside some portion of his late dignity, and depend almost entirely on vigour of line; the ease with which under-cutting is done in this material enabling him to obtain contrast by the use of delicately relieved forms. Here, however, he must not allow the effect in his model to depend in any degree on surface treatment. Care in that respect will prevent disappointment in the finished work.
The most noticeable feature in modern carved surface decoration is the almost universal tendency to overcrowding. It appears seldom to have occurred to the craftsman or designer that decorating a panel, for instance, is not at all the same thing as covering it with decoration. Still less does he seem to have felt that occasionally some portions of the ground are much more valuable in the design than anything which he can put on them. Indeed, the thoughtful designer who understands its use and appreciates its value, frequently has more trouble with his ground than with anything else in the panel. Also, if he have the true decorative spirit, his mind is constantly on the general scheme surrounding his work, and he is always ready to subordinate himself and his work in order that it may enhance and not disturb this general scheme.
We will suppose, for example, that he has to decorate a column with raised ornament. He feels at once that the outlines of that column are of infinitely more importance than anything which he can put on it, however ingenious or beautiful his design may be. He therefore keeps his necessary projecting parts as small and low as possible, leaving as much of the column as he can showing between the lines of his pattern. By this means the idea of strength and support is not interfered with, and the tout ensemble is not destroyed.
This may seem somewhat elementary to many who will read it. My excuse must be that one sees many columns in which every vestige of the outline is so covered by the carving which has been built round them, that the idea of their supporting anything other than their ornament appears preposterous.
There has been no opportunity to do more than glance at such a subject as this in a space so limited; but the purposes of this paper will have been served if it has supplied a useful hint to any craftsman, or if by its means any designer shall have been induced to make a more thorough study of the materials within his reach.