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.