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
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 under-cutting 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
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
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.