Arts and Crafts Essays/Stone and Wood Carving

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THE crafts of the stone and wood carver may fairly be taken in review at the same time, although they differ in themselves.

It is a misfortune that there should be so great a gulf as there is between the craftsman who is called, and considers himself to be properly called, "a sculptor" and his fellow-craftsman who is called "a carver." In these days the "sculptor" is but too often a man who would think it a condescension to execute what, for want of a better name, we must call decorative work. In truth, the sculptor is the outcome of that entire separation which has come about between the love of beauty, once common in everyday life, and art, as it is now called—a thing degraded to the purposes of a toy, a mere ornament for the rich. The sculptor is trained to make these ornaments, things which have no relation to their surroundings, but which may be placed now in a drawing-room, now in a conservatory or a public square, alone and unsheltered. He is a child of the studio.

The result of this training is, he has lost all knowledge how to produce work of a decorative character. He understands nothing of design in a wide sense, but being able to model a figure with tolerable success he rests therewith content. Being designed, as it is, in the studio, his work is wanting in sympathy with its surrounds; it does not fall into its place, it is not a part of a complete conception.

Things were not so when sculpture and what, for want of a better term, we have called "stone and wood carving" were at their prime.

The Greek craftsman could produce both the great figure of the god, which stood alone as the central object in the temple, and (working in thorough sympathy with the architect) the decorative sculpture of less importance which was attached to the building round about, and without which the beauty of the fabric was incomplete.

So also the great Florentine sculptors spent themselves with equal zeal on a door, the enclosure of a choir, a pulpit, or a tomb, which in those days meant not merely the effigy of the departed, but a complete design of many parts all full of beauty and skill.

In the great days of Mediæval Art sculpture played a part of the highest importance. The works then produced are not only excellent in themselves, but are so designed as to form a part of the building they adorn. How thoroughly unfinished would be the west front of the Cathedral at Wells, or the portals of Amiens or Reims, without their sculpture.

How rarely can we feel this sense of satisfaction, of unity of result, between the work of the sculptor and the architect in our buildings of to-day. The figures are "stood about" like ornaments on the mantelpiece. The architect seems as unable to prepare for them as the sculptor to make them. We seldom see congruity even between the figure and the pedestal on which it stands.

The want of this extended sympathy leads to another ill result. Wood, stone, and metal, different as they are, are treated by the artist in much the same fashion. The original model in clay seems to stand behind everything. The "artist" makes the clay model; his subordinates work it out in one or another material. The result can only be unsatisfactory because the natural limitations fixed by the qualities of the different materials have been neglected, whereas they should stand forth prominently in the mind of the artist from the moment he first conceives his design.

Marble, stones—some hard, some soft,—terra cotta, metals, or wood, each demand a difference of treatment. For example, the fibrous nature of wood enables the craftsman to produce work which would fall to pieces at the first blow if executed in stone. The polished and varied surface of marble demands a treatment of surface and section of mouldings which in stone would seem tame and poor. Again, it must not be forgotten that most works in stone or marble are built up. They are composed of many blocks standing one on the other. With wood it is quite different. Used in thick pieces it splits; good wood-work is therefore framed together, the framing and intermediate panelling lending itself to the richest decoration; but anything in the design which suggests stone construction is obviously wrong. In short, wood must be treated as a material that is fibrous and tenacious, and in planks or slabs; stone or marble as of close, even texture, brittle and in blocks.

Consequent on these differences of texture, we find that the tools and method of handling them used by the wood-carver differ in many respects from those used by the worker in stone or marble. One material is scooped and cut out, the other is attacked by a constant repetition of blows.

In the history of Mediæval Art we find that the craft of the stone-carver was perfectly understood long before that of his brother craftsman in wood. Whilst the first had all through Europe attained great perfection in the thirteenth century, the second did not reach the same standard till the fifteenth, and with the classic revival it died out. Nothing displays more fully the adaptation of design and decoration to the material than much of the fifteenth-century stall-work in our English cathedrals. These could only be executed in wood; the design is suited to that material only; but when the Italian influence creeps in, the designs adopted are in fact suited to fine stone, marble, or alabaster, and not to wood.

Until the craftsman in stone and wood is more of an architect, and the architect more of a craftsman, we cannot hope for improvement.

Somers Clarke.