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Stone And Wood Carving

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 surroundings; 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 Mediaeval 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

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

In the history of Mediaeval 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.


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