Apprentice Piece

I picked up this letter opener in the ’90s probably at the big antique center in Newburyport, MA. I doubt that I paid more than two dollars for it, and felt that I had procured a lovely little piece very cheaply. I was attracted to it for a variety of reasons. The professionally trained carver had selected European walnut for the article; I’ve always favored European over American walnut for delicate pieces because of its color and tight grain. The word SOUVENIR had not been carved with a V tool or knife but was carefully incised by using individual gouge sweeps- a mark of a trade carver with a relatively complete range of curves and sizes in a set ( only trade carvers usually have that extensive a set.)

While this was no masterwork the acanthus leaf designs are beautiful, and accurately laid out and carved, and yes there is a right way and lots of wrong ways to do that. A reasonable conclusion from all the above was that the carver had been a European trained furniture carver. Someone perhaps passing from Apprentice to Journeyman, and eager to show off hard won skills.

There is age wear on the letter opener, but very little damage. It is a flat relatively thin piece that the craft person probably carved while glued to thick paper or some similar surface for carving. After completing the letter opener, a spatula would be slid under the edge to detach it. The glue used would have been a water-soluble one like hide glue, Applied hot it has excellent adhesive qualities but will release when wet. This method was and remains a good way of carving thin pieces like carved applique.
Keep your eyes open for pieces like this. They are not only lovely examples of the craft, but they offer visual lessons in how things get done. Watching a video, or reading books are fine, but handling a piece and looking at it close up is a great way to holistically understand the needed skills, tools and approach to handling complex carving. In lieu of this, I can’t emphasize the importance of museum visits enough.

3 Replies to “Apprentice Piece”

  1. The carving on the handle looks so intricate compared to the more primitive carving of the word ‘souvenir.’ Is that unusual? Or is the word more intricate than I am giving the carver credit for?

    1. You have a good eye. That’s one reason I think it’s an apprentice piece. Acanthus leaf carving is something a furniture carver would learn early on because it’s a classic design style used for hundreds of applications, and has certain strict rules for construction. Lettering He, or she, may not have been so familiar with. That type of lettering is tricky to do well.

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