Brief Historical Notes about the Master Carvers Association
During the Victorian era, the phenomenal growth of towns and cities in Britain resulted in a building boom that has not been equalled since.
The requirement for civic buildings, churches and housing created an unprecedented demand for artist-craftsmen. Large workshops of architectural and ornamental carvers flourished in many areas, with the skills to tackle the florid styles of the day.
The Association was founded by the many employers of thousands of trade carvers in the late 19th century. Its primary function was to uphold the quality of training of architectural carvers, provide a mechanism within which their skills were recognised and for which rates of pay and working conditions could be negotiated with the newly emerging Trades Unions.
To become a Member of the Association, an employer had to demonstrate the carving skills of his employees were of an excellent standard, comprehensive, properly rewarded and that an apprentice training scheme was in place.
Today things are very different. Architectural styles have changed with carved ornament very rarely a requirement. The large workshops that could encompass the manifold skills of architectural carving in wood and stone plus the allied crafts, hardly exist today.
More often than not crafts people are working in small specialist groups or as individuals. This dispersal has also brought about a change in the training of crafts people.
Some colleges now provide courses in basic skills that students can hone later on shorter apprenticeships with a Master Carver.
With the main growth area being in restoration and conservation, carvers have had to become proficient in many styles, as the demand requires, quickly learning to carve in ‘the spirit of the age’. For instance the replacement of gothic stone carving on Westminster Abbey, late 17th century oak wood carving at Hampton Court Palace, 18th century wood and marble at Spencer House, London, and 18th century and 19th century wood carving at Windsor Castle. Many of these projects were worked on by the same group of craftsmen.
Although the skill of carving has changed very little, modern carvers must also learn the new skills of casting in the modern resins and plastics needed in the 21st century, whilst retaining the old skills and materials for restoration work.
The Association celebrated its Centenary in 1998 with a splendid dinner at the Savoy Hotel in London, where a gathering of many long established members and newly recruited younger members pledged to uphold the traditions and professionalism of the past, looking forward to the next century with confidence in their skill and a determination to succeed.
The first and the last of the big Studio /workshops.
Grinling Gibbons and I have one indisputable fact in common, we both owe a major part of our working life to a disaster in London. His was the great fire of 1666, and mine was WW2. The positive result was, Grinling Gibbons had the opportunity of working with the architect Sir Christopher Wren, decorating his buildings with his magnificent wood/stone carvings. I had the opportunity to work on the rebuilding of the Wren buildings, and restoring the Gibbons carvings contained therein.
Pick up any book on Grinling Gibbons, and you are stunned by the amount of beautiful carving, and a lay person must ask how did one man manage to do all that in a lifetime?
The answer is of course he did`nt. He would have had a large studio /workshop. How large and what would it have been like to have worked there, nobody can be certain, however I would like to think it would have been very similar to the one I worked in after WW2.
In Febuary 1952 when London was getting back to normal after the war, there was a massive rebuilding programme going on, and I was very much part of it.
I signed up for a 5 year indentured apprenticeship as wood/stone carver and modeller with E.J.Bradford’s, a firm of Architectural Sculptures, which describes exactly what we did, located in Southwark London. They were the largest firm in London at that time, employing on average of 20 journeymen, who would come and go as the volume of work dictated. They had all the big contracts, St Paul`s Cathedral, Houses of Parliament, the Wren City churches, City Livery companies and Palaces.
As my father was not a carver he had to pay £50.00 for my apprenticeship, a consideral sum in those days. It would have been the same in Gibbons time.
The studio was in an old stable block, with woodcarving upstairs. Along the loft there were 3 long benches, with journeymen working side by side. Each man would have about 200 tools in front him, varying in sizes from 3 inches wide, to ones no bigger than a small knitting needle. I have a dozen long tools 15inches in length including the handle, known as Gibbons tools. The handles have the names of all previous owners stamped on them, one name is believed to be an employee of Gibbons. Also a 2 pound brass mallet.
The stonecarving was downstairs with fewer men, as a lot of the work would have been done on site. They would have only 100 tools as they often needed to carry them to the building site to work. Again some tools are 18 inches long, this is because in wood Gibbons would laminate 2 inch planks to get the depth of carving, whereas with stone it has to be a solid block.
It`s essential that to be a good Gibbons carver you must work in wood and stone. This is because Gibbons carving is very subtlety modelled, a technique used more in stone than wood. That`s not just my opinion but the opinion of all the carvers I have worked with. (About 60 in all) also in an arcticle by Mr Colley the Master Carver at St Paul`s written in the Times, in 1913 supports this fact.
How do you train to be a Gibbons carver? I shall use woodcarving as a medium to explain, however the same applies to stonecarving.
Wherever you find the limewood swags and drops of fruit and flowers so associated with Gibbons, you will find oak panelling with miles of carved mouldings. This is where you start on the small simple strap leaf. The mouldings are prepared by the joiners, the carver then puts a stencil on the moulding, with a brush and boot polish transfers the pattern on to the wood. Then with the minimum number of tools you begin to carve. This you will keep on doing until you can produce one foot of moulding in one hour. This is achieved by eventually Not stencilling the pattern, because you must train your eye to draw the pattern with the tool. Next you move on to a larger moulding, each time stencilling the pattern, then discarding it as you gain in confidence.
This way you learn to transfer the design from a drawing, or a pattern by eye.
About half way through your apprenticeship, you would be given a piece of fruit and flower carving that has been roughed in by a journeyman, that he has taken from a solid block of wood, to a state where all the features are in place, but not finished. The piece also needs undercutting, which is an expensive process, ideal for a low payed apprentice, and very valuable experience. All this time you are learning to cut the Wood/Stone cleanly, with a smooth finish, no time or need for sandpaper or files. At the end of your apprenticeship you were expected to be able to carve anything asked of you.
I repeat that the training process is the same for stone, except they don’t use boot polish to stencil the pattern.
You soon learn that every tool cut must count, every wasted tool cut is a waste of money.
It is important to say here that I am tired of seeing on teleivision, on social media, and in badly informed books, the carver traces his drawing on to the wood, then sets in with a chisel, then cuts the drawing away. What a waste of time. This method is used by beginners and amateurs. This also produces a mechanical and lifeless style of work, not the flowing style of Gibbons. The professional Gibbons carver neither has the time or the need to work in this way.
You look at the drawing and draw with the tool. It`s the same technique as carving in stone. If you are carving a figure, you can`t trace it on first.
Anyone who thinks that the carving workshop is a cosy arty crafty place, think again. It is very difficult to make money from carving and we know Gibbons did make a lot money, as did Mr Bradford. This is done by knowing how long a piece of carving should take without sacrificing the quality.
During my 30 years working at St Paul`s Cathedral I am convinced that Gibbons was the first person to set up a production line system for his carvings, and this is how he was able to make a profit from carving. It certainly worked at Bradford’s. It also enabled him to produce the vast amount of work.
The evidence for this is that when I took the limewood carvings in the quire stalls down for cleaning and repair, I noticed that far from being a free design they are cut to a pattern. Look along the top of the quire, there are 48 oak scrolls, but only 2 patterns. One is a fish scale, the other is fluted. At Bradford’s the master would have carved a pattern of each, then he would have got the journey men to carve 23 of each.
Now look in between the oak scrolls there are limewood swags, again just 2 patterns, one is an acanthus leaf, the other is an oak leaf. Again the master carves two patterns, and gets the journeymen to carve the other 23 of each pattern.
Look at the cherub heads, this time there are three patterns, one head looks to the right, one to the left, and one forward. So three patterns this time.
You follow a pattern all the way through the quire stalls.
Now go outside and look under the windows, here you will see what I think is his finest work, panels of fruit and flowers in Portland stone, carved with the same delicacy as any woodcarving, but again to a pattern.
Bradford’s studio, was not a bed of roses. When the master gave out his pattern to about four journey men, they all started at the same time, which meant that one was always looking at the next man to make sure that he was not going to finish before you. If the first one took 30 hours, the next would take 28 hours and so on. That is how you make a profit.
This always worked when you had repeat patterns, e.g. capitals and mouldings.
The competition in the studio was great, who could be the best and the quickest. At Bradford’s we had just two men who would get all the figure carvings. I think the man who carved the figure of Christ on the Baldacchino in the cathedral was the best, but the man who carved angels around the top of the Baldacchino and the cherubs on the pulpit was also very good. He also carved in stone one of the large cartouches in the saucer dome in the north transept.
Some men had a reputation for being exceptionally quick at certain things. One such man could carve a cherubs head in three days, I could never do one in less than three and a half days. They would then be called in just for that one project, then move on. True journeymen.
I am sure that Gibbons employed the same method. Men specializing in Birds, Fish, Sea shells and Acanthus scrolls etc.
He as the Master would have been busy discussing with the client, the general design and cost of the work. Then he would have prepared more detailed working drawings for his men, possibly making a clay model first. Maybe occasionally carving a pattern himself. All the very best men in Europe would have been available to him. There is a panel on the west front of the Cathedral which has some Italian marble influence on it.
For me Gibbons was a very successful fashion designer. He created a style of carving never seen before, using limewood, it allows the carver to demonstrate his skill to new limits. It was extremely expensive to produce and allowed the rich and famous to demonstrate their wealth and power. When you walk into a room of Gibbons carving it is impossible to ignore.
Then he set up the most efficient workshop to produce the vast amount of carving to satisfy the demand.
In retrospect, it was fashionable for only a short time, but it has allowed other carvers to try and reproduce it, with varying degrees of success.
When all the bomb damage buildings were restored the number of men were no longer needed and Bradford’s fell into decline. It was the end of the big workshops, there will never be enough work to support the number of men they employed, unless there is another major disaster in London.
I believe I have been lucky enough to have lived through a unique time in architectural carving, which was very comparable with the workshops of Mr Grinling Gibbons.
Tony Webb retired Master Carver at St Paul`s Cathedral.