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Wednesday 30 December 2015

Teaching woodcarving at Nailsea school, near Bristol: carving a Green Man into a log of Ash wood

On the weekend before Christmas, I went back to Nailsea school to do some more woodcarving tuition. After teaching a very enjoyable session there previously, working with pupils at the school, I was looking forward to it!

woodcarving at Nailsea school

This session was a little different as all of the people attending were adults and the session was partially funded by a local community group; the Nailsea Community Trust. We also had to carve in the art room instead of the outdoor DEN space, as the rain was pouring down outside. 

However, the tables in that room were at just the right height to carve (carver's benches are generally higher than joiner's benches). The hot drinks and snacks were also on hand courtesy of Rebecca Hollingdale, who runs the DEN project at the school and who organised the session.

The Green Man is such an intriguing image, open to such varied interpretation, that I always enjoy watching people carve them. We were using logs of Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), sourced  by the DEN project from recent woodland management work. 

teaching woodcarving to adults

Ash is very pleasant to work with when freshly-cut and green, but can be tough work to carve by hand once seasoned. It is also not particularly durable outdoors, but that could be an attractive feature for some people I'm sure - the image of the Green Man returning to nature.

carving a green man in wood

After a brief safety talk and a few (hopefully) handy pointers about facial anatomy, the group started carving. Some people were quite happy to get stuck in, but others were more reluctant to start cutting in deeply. Sculpting a face can be quite daunting and I can completely understand that some people would feel a little nervousness and even frustration when setting out to do such a project. I've found that for many learners who feel a bit overwhelmed, the best thing to do is just to start carving, removing the outer bark at first to see where the process takes you.

carving ash wood

Once everyone was into the flow of things, one of the most rewarding things about the day was seeing everyone starting to create unique and expressive sculptures. All of the faces were very different and by the end everyone seemed very happy with the carvings that they had produced. 

Some people used the differently-coloured inner and outer bark layers against the pale ash wood to make some very interesting designs.

Some faces seemed to show someone who was relaxed, others were much more dynamic with expressive tool marks left on them:

It was great to see all of the faces put together at the end (apart from one, as the person who carved it had to go home a bit earlier). I'm sure you'll agree that they look very interesting together, showing a few different interpretations of the image of the Green Man.

green man woodcarving

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Another hidden carved treasure in Bristol: the Canynges fireplace in the Savage's wigwam and the secret meaning of the Judgement of Solomon

Regular readers of this blog (thank you, by the way!) will know that I'm very interested in older British carvings and the things that they show. Perhaps this is partly due to many carvings having been destroyed during particular periods in the country's history: King Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, the over-zealous Puritans, the prudish Victorians and bombers during the Second World War have all caused many historic carvings to be lost in this country. Those that have survived often give fascinating glimpses of the lives and interests of the carvers that made them and the times that they lived in, as well as the techniques that they used.

If you are visiting Bristol, my own favourite woodcarving highlights to try and see are:

The sixteenth century misericords in Bristol cathedral

The eighteenth century carvings from Thomas Paty's workshop, in Redland Chapel

The Grinling Gibbons oak overmantle in Bristol library

The oak rooms in the Red Lodge, from the late sixteenth century

In this post, I'd like to share another treasure. It is the Canynges fireplace in the Bristol Savage's wigwam.

The Bristol Savages are a society of artists and musicians who meet in the 'wigwam', an impressive building in the garden of the Red Lodge in Bristol. 

Image from
The society first began meeting in 1894 and took the name 'Savages' in 1904. In 1919, the Red Lodge came on the market and the Savages bought it. After drawing up a lease to allow continued use of the building for meetings, it was officially handed over to the City of Bristol. 

The design of the wigwam is loosely based on a Gloucestershire tithe barn. It was designed by a member of the Savages named C.F.W. Dening, and became their official meeting place in April 1920.

Although it is not generally open to the public, on Open Doors days non-members can go inside the wigwam and see the collection of strange and fascinating artefacts. That is how I came to see the impressive carved fireplace that is the subject of this post.

Canynges fireplace in Bristol savages wigwam

According to an information board next to the fireplace, it originally stood in Canynge's House in Bristol. When that building was demolished in the 1930's, a member of the Savages named Eddie Welch rescued this fireplace and gave it to them. 

Image from
This painting, by A.E. Parkman, shows the fireplace in its original home after a destructive fire in 1881. At this time, the building was occupied by C.T. Jefferies and Sons who were printers and booksellers. The house was originally built for the Canynges, a family of powerful and wealthy medieval Bristolian merchants. 

William Canynge the Younger (b. 1400-d. 1474) gave a lot of money to St Mary Redcliffe church in Bristol and his merchant's mark can still be seen carved or painted on many places in the church, as well as his heraldic shield (showing three moor's heads) and also statues of Canynge himself.

Image from
He had this fireplace in his banqueting hall and the information board points out that it 'must have witnessed the vast feast that Canynge gave to Edward IV in 1461'.

According to the information board, there are at least three phases of carving on display in the fireplace. The lower part dates to around 1350.

On each side of the fireplace stands a figure. These show William Canynge the Younger as a layman on the left and as a member of the clergy on the right (he was ordained in 1468 after the death of his wife and became dean of Westbury-on-Trym in 1469). They must have been added later on and you may notice that they have already been removed from the fireplace in Parkman's painting shown above.

William Canynge the younger

The over mantle may have been added at a later date again. The information board says that its age is 'Jacobean (say 1650)'. The fashions do look Jacobean, but that would place its making between 1603 and 1625 and not at the later date of 1650 (which was during the rule of Cromwell's Parliament, an unlikely period for such an elaborate and obviously Royalist feature to be produced). 

The central scene depicted on the over mantle is the Judgement of Solomon, a story from the Old Testament of the Bible.

The tale relates how Solomon was approached by two women, who are identified as prostitutes in some versions of the tale (hence the bared breasts). They had both given birth in the same place at about the same time. One child was stillborn but the other lived. The mother of the dead child secretly exchanged the living child for hers during the night but the child's real mother protested and the two women appealed to Solomon to decide who was the real mother.

He decided that each mother should keep half of the living child. Just as the sword was about to cleave the youngster in two, the real mother of the living child proved that it was hers by begging for its life. The mother of the dead child persisted in asking for the sword to be used.

The over mantle shows King James the First of England (or James the Sixth of Scotland) as the wise king Solomon. I wonder if there is more to this than meets the eye though. 

The story of the Judgement of Solomon is thought to be a political parable by many scholars (as mentioned in The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick). The false mother represents Solomon, the true mother his political rival Adonijah. The living child represents Israel and the sword is war. In this parable, Solomon is declaring his readiness to split the kingdom with Civil War and that Adonijah and his family should give up the throne rather than see Israel destroyed. This is why, on hearing Solomon's Judgement, all Israel 'trembled'.

The king of Britain after James was Charles the First and his reign ended with the English Civil War and Charles' execution. I wonder if the scene on the fireplace alludes to the growing conflict between the Royalty and Parliament at the time, or possibly the competing Catholic and Protestant claims to the throne?

You may notice that there are two alcoves to each side of the figure of Solomon/James. The one on the right contains the figure of Eve but that on the left is empty. The figure of Adam was removed from it at a later date as it was thought to be too rude.

Thanks to the representatives of the Bristol Savages for taking time to chat with me about the fireplace and for giving permission to take photographs at the event.

Thursday 10 December 2015

The fascinating and sometimes very rude sixteenth-century misericords in Bristol Cathedral

The collection of misericords in Bristol Cathedral date from 1515-1526 and were installed by order of Abbot Robert Elyot. The stalls around them date to the nineteenth century but the misericords are the original ones. 

In 'Church Woodcarvings: A West Country Study', JCD Smith says that the Bristol misericords are 'the newest set of medieval misericords of any size in the West Country' and that they are 'not renowned for the superlative quality of their carving but they are outstandingly interesting in their subject matter.'

Misericords are small ledges revealed when the seats in the choir stalls are tipped up. They were used by clergy to rest against whilst standing for long periods of time during Masses. The odd name comes
from the Latin words for 'pity' and 'heart'.

Many of the Bristol misericords illustrate tales of Reynard the Fox, a trickster peasant-hero figure. Stories about him were popular all over Europe, especially in Britain after William Caxton published a printed version in 1481. Some images are harder to decipher and may illustrate morality tales or sayings that have been lost over time.

Sadly, not all of the misericords can be easily seen by a visitor, due to some badly-placed brass rings holding the ends of ropes that stop anyone sitting on the seats. However, the designs have been replicated on embroidered cushion covers that rest on the seats, although some of the cushions have been moved around from their original places. Here are a few misericords that can be seen:

In this tale from Reynard the fox, Tybalt the cat has been sent to bring him to justice. He is tricked along the way into being trapped in the house of the priest's mistress. The priest's son has Tybalt on a leash whilst she belabours him with a broom, but Tybalt has the priest's testicles in his mouth. Checkmate.

Tybalt and the priest have another fight. Dame Dulok tries to pull the cat off the naked priest's back as Reynard the fox watches from a bush on the right. Some of the faces carved on the supporters to each side are so well executed that they make me wonder if they represent actual people - perhaps other builders or apprentices used as models, or clergy of the time? In 'The Hidden World of Misericords', Dorothy and Henry Kraus say that these side carvings are also sometimes called 'wing carvings' and that they are 'the most distinguishing stylistic feature of British misericords.'

In 'Church Misericords  and Bench Ends', Hayman notes that the carvings of Reynard's tales in Bristol  draw heavily on the first illustrated edition published in 1501, or perhaps a Netherlandish or German equivalent.

A monster with two heads drives three naked men. Richard Hayman, in his book 'Church Misericords and Bench Ends', says that this design was 'copied from a book of hours printed in about 1500 in Paris by Thielmann Kerver.'

While all this is going on, a man touches his nose with his tongue and a monkey plays a lute. Maybe having fun on the Sabbath got these unfortunate men in trouble.

Someone is in trouble for having a look in the cooking pot. Maybe this was to remind the clergy that married life has it's ups and downs?

In this strange and beautifully-carved tableau, a mermaid is held by a wyvern and an odd winged man who may be the Devil. The mermaid in church carvings usually represents the perils of lust. There is a clown on the supporter to the left and an ape holding a flask (of wine or urine?) on the right.

Two men holding a pig. The man on the right is holding what is often interpreted as intestines with a knife nearby, showing the hog is being slaughtered. This subject can also be seen on a misericord at the Church de La Trinité in Vendôme in France. 

I'd suggest that there is another possible interpretation, that the pig (which is obviously a sow and looks very alive) is in difficulties giving birth and the men are trying to assist. Two rabbits run in and out of holes under the bench that the sow is on.

The geese come to see the fox hanged, as two sorrowful human faces also look on.

Varty, in '"Reynard the Fox: Cultural Metamorphoses and social engagement in the Beast' says that although this scene is inspired by the Tales of Reynard, in the actual tales the fox is never executed. He points out that this scene was only depicted in England and this is one of two surviving images of it, the other being in Beverley Minster.

Hayman, In his book on 'Church Misericords and bench ends' says that the stories about Reynard inspired a separate tale of the fox bishop. In a satire on corrupt clergy, the fox bishop and his friends the apes dupe the local pigs and birds. However he eventually gets his comeuppance and the geese, in an act that turns the normal order on its head, hang the trickster. The whole story is illustrated on bench ends in the church at Brent Knoll in Somerset.

A tale from the Old Testament of the Bible. Samson is empowered by God to wrestle a lion and tear it apart with his bare hands. He carries the jawbone of an ass in his belt, with which he defeats an army single handed.
In George Jack's textbook 'Wood Carving: Design and Workmanship', first published in 1903, he shows illustrations of the two side figures of this misericord. Jack writes;

"The little jester just emerging from  flower..., is undoubtedly a true portrait, carved without the slightest attempt at exaggeration. The quiet humour which it evinces required only sympathy to perceive and skill to portray on the part of its carver. He had nothing to invent in the common acceptation of the word. The carving of the mendicant, which comes on the other side, is equally vivid in its truth to nature. It is so lifelike that we do not notice the humorous enjoyment of the artist in depicting the whining lips and closed eyes of the professional beggar. Observe the good manners of it all - the natural refinement of the artist who leaves his characters to make all the fun, without intrusion from himself other than to give the aid of his skill in representation."

I'm assuming that Jack (whose expression of personal opinions throughout seems unusually free for someone writing a textbook) had either not seen or chose to ignore the side figure shown four photos on from this one, for whom the expressions 'good manners' and 'natural refinement' don't necessarily seem to apply!

Two men wrestle naked with a thong or scarves wrapped around their necks, perhaps binding them together, while another man looks on and points towards the ground. In the original Greek Olympics, men wrestled naked.

An ape riding a horse (?) with a sack for a saddle, encounters a naked man wielding a stick who holds the mount's tail. Two rabbits in burrows below.

A man hunting a stag with his dog shoots it in it's flank. Perhaps refers to one of the Christian saints of hunting, Saint Hubertus or Saint Eustace?

A naked man fights off two beasts (demons?) with a sword. Look carefully at the figure on the supporter to the left. Medieval Christian carvings were a lot bawdier than later ones!! This isn't the only example of such a figure on a misericord. The is similar one one in the Cathedral of St Tugdual in Tréguier in France.

In 'Church Woodcarvings: A West Country Study', JCD Smith records that;
'After 1841, when restorations were carried out in the cathedral, there remained thirty misericords but, according to the records, several were removed at about this date. In a paper given to the Clifton Antiquarian Club in 1888, Robert Hall Warren listing the misericords which were in the cathedral before the restorations, stated that three of them were too indecent to be exposed to view or even mentioned. Presumably the dean and chapter at that time shared Mr Warren's opinion, which would explain their absence today. Tradition has it that they were burned.'

Satan comes out of the jaws of Hell to greet a woman who is leading in four apes on leashes. Apes obviously mean human sinners in these carvings. I wonder how the Theory of Evolution would have been received in those days!

This carving illustrates a tradition of the time, which said that maids who die unmarried would lead the souls of bachelors, like apes, into Hell. In 'Misericords: Medieval Life in English Woodcarving', Anderson mentions that this saying is alluded to in Shakespeare's plays 'The Taming of the Shrew' and 'Much Ado about Nothing' and points out that it became popular in the late sixteenth century. This is interesting, as the carvings were produced at an earlier date than that.

This is one of the most complex and beautifully-carved sets. JCD Smith says that the man is riding a muzzled bear and that the scene is a parody of the game of quintain. The book also points out that the simplified, 'crude' representations of trees are characteristic of these Bristol misericords.

In 'The Hidden World of Misericords', the Krauses talk about how many misericords show parodies of courtly pursuits as 'the posturings of the waning knight class were satirised in sham contests'.

A man riding a sow and a woman riding a goose or turkey look like they are having a mock joust. Although the bird is often referred to as a goose, some of the first turkeys seen in Britain were brought to Bristol by William Strickland and sold in the market there in 1526. That was the year in which the last of the misericords was carved and the turkeys must have caused quite a stir, so I think that the novel bird has been recorded by this carver. It certainly looks a lot more like a turkey than a goose!

Mike Harding has pointed out that many misericords celebrate the 'The world turned upside down'. On St Stephen's day, Lords of Misrule would be elected and the normal rules would be abandoned, which probably gave a welcome and necessary release to a society bound by so many legal and moral conventions. Although the 'Feast of Fools'  was not formally abolished in England until a Royal Proclamation in 1542, this celebration can still be seen today in the tradition of 'Carnival'.
The two green men on the supporters are also worth noting.

A snail, with its house on its back in a tied bundle, is encouraged to speed up by a man with a double-thonged whip as another man looks on. Knights and others in battle with snails are a surprisingly common theme in medieval art and there is a video by Vox Almanac on Youtube that considers some possible reasons, including that the snail is an allegorical depiction of the Lombards.

Friday 27 November 2015

Teaching wood carving lessons in Bristol and Nailsea, to individuals and schools

I've been teaching carving regularly for about nine years and really enjoy sharing the craft that I love with people who would like to learn the skills to make their own wood carvings. 

woodcarving lessons in schools

It isn't necessarily a one-way process either; it's always interesting to experience things through the eyes of someone who is new to carving. Often 'learners'  will come up with great ideas that I might not normally think of. Even after over twenty-one years of carving, new ways of imagining designs are always good to see.

In the last month, I've run two very different teaching sessions. The first was a session of individual tuition at my studio. One particularly enjoyable thing about individual tuition is that it means that the learner can practise with my own full set of professional carving tools, which wouldn't really be appropriate to use with larger groups of inexperienced carvers. I always use good quality, sharp tools when teaching anybody but with individuals, I can first make sure that they have the knowledge to safely use some of the particularly delicate tools in that set. The person attending can also have the entire session completely tailored around the particular information or skills that they want to learn more about.

sharpening chisel

I had worked with Rich before when he brought groups of disengaged young people to Boiling Wells, where I used to work part-time. He's been getting more and more interested in woodworking since then and wanted a few pointers about things that aren't necessarily taught in conventional carpentry or joinery courses, such as the uses of different kinds of native timbers.

Another subject that especially interested him was sharpening techniques. It strikes me that this is really best learned by actually being shown it, by some one who knows how to sharpen, and then practising it regularly. We covered everything from using different kinds of bench grinders to making an effective strop to hone blades until they are razor-sharp. By the end of the session, Rich not only knew how to sharpen using various types of sharpening device but also had his chisels and an axe honed again, to take back with him and use.

Later in November, I travelled over to Nailsea school to teach carving at the D.E.N. project. The school uses this area in its grounds to run forest school sessions and they are very interested in teaching students practical skills.

Nailsea school DEN

Throughout the afternoon, groups of up to five pupils came out to the small shelter in the D.E.N. area and carved oak plaques to take home with them. 

They could carve pretty much whatever they liked and it was fascinating seeing what designs were produced. I was particularly interested by how many chose themes to do with computers, such as items from Minecraft, which they reproduced using the very traditional techniques of wood carving. It was also interesting seeing the journey that some people had during the session, from initially being very frustrated with new, unfamiliar skills to finding more confidence and eventually making pieces that were nicely done and that they could feel happy with.

woodcarving tuition in Bristol

Miss Hollingdale, who invited me to run the session, really got into the carving too and I anticipate that it's going to be a regular feature at D.E.N. sessions from now on!

Bristol wood carving lessons

Friday 13 November 2015

Fishes for St Monica

The St Monica Trust run retirement homes and specialist care for older people. They have a large site on Cote Lane, by the Downs in Bristol.

st monica trust cote lane

I've worked with the Trust before and did some presentations about carving there earlier this year. It was great to be asked recently by one of the residents if I could help with a project.

St Monica Trust was originally founded to cater particularly for people who followed the doctrine of the Church of England (although they now accept people of other faiths, or none) and that Church is still very important to many residents. The chapel at Cote Lane is an impressive sight.

st monica trust chapel

Peter is a retired architect, a resident at Cote Lane and a keen woodworker. He was interested in making two collection plates, using their fine on-site wood workshop, to donate to the chapel. 

Collection (or Offertory) plates are passed around at services and those attending can donate money to go towards the upkeep of the church, or various good causes.

Peter planned to turn the plates from spalted beech wood and to then insert discs turned from rosewood into the bases of them. The beechwood plates were pretty much finished when he came around and looked very nice indeed. 

The part that I could help with was carving identical designs into both of the rosewood discs, which were about 100mm (4") in diameter. The carved areas would later be filled with a mixture of resin and metal dust to form a striking finish. I had some previous experience with this technique (which has been used by other makers, including the late Tim Stead), and this meant that Peter and I could discuss how to go about it. I also mentioned to him about the hazards of breathing in the fine metal powder and the fumes given off by some resins when curing, which can both be very harmful.

The elegant design shows three interlocking fishes and was originally created by David Saxon, a retired architect who is also a resident at St Monica Trust.

David Saxon Ichthys design

Fish are a symbol that Christians have used since the early days of their religion to identify it and themselves. You may wonder why:

ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys) is an acrostic (a word made up of the first letters of several words) that is made up from the first letters of the Greek words "Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ". These translate into English as "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour". In Greek, Ichthys means 'fish'. 
There is also a miracle mentioned in the Bible where Jesus feeds large numbers of people with a small number of loaves and fishes. Some of the first disciples of Jesus to be mentioned were also fishermen.

Carving the discs

To get two identical designs carved by hand onto each disc, I first printed out the design and glued it onto the surfaces with spray mount, then cut straight through into the wood. 

The discs had round blocks underneath, to fix them into the dishes. These could be held in a clamp made up of a bench hook holding two pieces of thick plywood with semi-circles cut out of them and a strip of rubber inserted to give more traction.

I needed to make the fine lines wider, to prevent them breaking. The eyes also broke off a couple of times during carving, so circular plugs were cut out of the round blocks (which would be cut down and then hidden when glued into the plates) to carefully replace them. The grain of the wood made it almost impossible to completely avoid some breakage of the very fine and fragile details during carving but this was easily worked around with some thought.

Once the discs had been carved using traditional hand tools, a Dremel rotary tool was used to clean up recesses and to put some texture onto the floor of the head areas. This looks pleasingly like scales, but will be covered with the metal and resin mix and provide a key.

ichthys design

When Peter saw them, he was very pleased but requested lines to be cut that also clearly defined the backs of the fishes. I was happy to do the carving there and then, so gave him a cup of tea while he waited. These lines also suggested carving the head area to run into them, which both us very agreed looked very nice too and made the carved designs appear more lively.

Wood carving of fish

A few weeks later, the completed plates were on show at St Monica Trust, together with other work made by the residents, as part of an Open Day. I went up to see them.

This image shows the display in the wood workshop watched over by David Saxon, who created the fish design originally. I thought that Peter had done a great job of the plates and I'm very happy to have been able to contribute to the project. 

Collection plates

Image courtesy of Peter Caird