I used to regard myself as quite an artist. As an adolescent I even imagined making art my career. I produced many paintings in the 1970s, heavily influenced by my father’s expectations of what a picture should look like. Painting is a solitary activity, and by the time I was thirty I had abandoned it for the more gregarious pursuit of playing in an orchestra. Music also has the advantage that once it has been played it has gone, vanished into the ether, leaving no scraps of paper and paint to dispose of.
I did not leave art behind completely; I continued to doodle a few sketches, but my main artistic endeavours turned to woodcarving. This was a big change; I didn’t use paint brushes or palette knives any more, but I needed chisels and gouges instead. I was fortunate in having a few already, which I had inherited from my father; he was not really a woodcarver (although he did produce a charming scene on the door a grandmother clock that is now in the possession of my sister), but he was an inveterate collector of tools. I could have done with more of them, but I had enough. These tools had to be kept sharp, so a grinder was useful and an oilstone essential.
I had been taught the basics of painting and drawing by my art master Stuart Webster, but as a woodcarver I was entirely self-taught. I worked out a few principles for myself; in doing full 3-D objects the technique was very different from doing low-relief carvings (my preferred method). In this you were essentially drawing in light and shade, and this meant exaggerated undercutting to produce the necessary shadows.
The type of wood used produced very different results. Lime wood was the medium used by that masterly carver of the 17th century, Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). Some of his best work may be seen at Chatsworth House. I don’t wish to minimise his achievement, but is so easy to carve in lime that it is rather like cutting cheese. The grain of the wood is not an issue, and does not affect the resulting carving in any way. With oak this is an entirely different matter; oak is a very hard wood, and an intractable material; the grain is very important. An oak carving is robust and often you can see the way the chisel was used centuries after the carver laid down his tools. This not the case with lime. Objects in oak and lime are the two extremes, but they are also the most common woods used by the woodcarver. Other woods are also carved, but those with contorted grain (like burr walnut), while giving an excellent surface texture for furniture, are impossible to carve.
I had some success with my woodcarving; I entered a carving of a trout in a competition that was run by the Post Office for its employees. Although their number is large (well over a hundred thousand), postmen are not namely for their artistic ability, so perhaps it not surprising that I won first prize. This entailed a trip up to London (on a rail warrant provide by the PO) to the Post Office HQ, which was then still in its historic hub of St Marin’s Le Grand (it later moved to Old Street, which I also had occasion to visit on a different matter). What the prize was I have forgotten (it wasn’t much) but the occasion was special. I was presented with my prize by a man who later became Managing Director of the Post Office. He was a very unimpressive character; he may have had hidden depths, although the progress of that venerable institution into the 21st century suggests that he was as mediocre as he appeared to be.
I subsequently entered another work in the competition few years later, but this time I only came second, and that did not entail another trip to the capital. The winning entry was a sculpture of female nude, which some of my colleagues suggested had more to do with its success than genuine artistic rigour. My declining health gave me other things to think about, and woodcarving was at an end.
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