We were at a tavern in the Seaport district in New York. I had just won a bet on recognizing a carver’s work based on their tool cuts. It was an easy win; the carvings I had identified were by a carver whose work I was familiar with. Carvers have habits like everyone else, ways we like to do eagle feathers, eyes, or our taste in how fancy the volutes are ( those carved spiral designs that you often see on violins, columns, or holding up figureheads). See enough of this, especially if it’s your professional interest and you recognize the style. Of course, the most carving is anonymous. Whether in stone, wood, or other media, most of us and our carvings will be nameless. An occasional mentor of mine had trained in France before the Second World War and told me that daily, hundreds of feet of exquisite trade carved molding and detail were produced in his master’s shop. All of it was destined to be nameless. So yes, I can recognize the styles of Samuel Robb, Bellamy, Rush, or Skillin in many cases. But museums are full of unattributed work. Some of this is happenstance; the carver was in a small harbor and attracted little notice. Or, in the case of Bellamy, he was located in space and time when his work attracted attention. Bellamy also developed a distinctive and unique style that captured much attention.
Friends who’ve been with me on visits to the Peabody Essex Museum or the Mystic Seaport have to stifle yawns if we pass a particularly lovely piece of carving. Then, my whole demeanor changes, and I begin to discuss the style and execution of the design. Then, getting deeper into the weeds, I discuss if the carving represents a particular regional style. Please don’t laugh; when it comes to volutes on billet heads, there is a regional difference between, say, the Chesapeake and New England.
I imagine two old ships carvers in the 19th century getting snookered and getting into a fight over the curves on a volute to the disgust of their wives. The marine trades are full of passionate people.
The carving shown here is in the Chase House in Strawberry Banke, a unique museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that preserves the 300-year history of a waterfront neighborhood. The carving is attributed to ship carver Ebenezer Dearing and is in the formal parlor. The rest of my family toured the house while I examined this carving. It’s carved in White Pine, almost certainly carved as a separate unit on a temporary base. Once carved, the artist removed it from the temporary support and undercut or “backed” the ribbon work so that it appears free of the surface beneath it. After finishing, it was added to a flat ground piece that comprises what I’d call the under mantle. I can’t tell if the work was originally painted or left in its natural color. The carving was probably done in the mid-1760s when Dearing owned the building and timewise fits into the Georgian Period for design. I invite a ton of criticism, but the undercut ribbon work and some other design elements suggest that earlier baroque design practices influenced the carver. That was why I poured through my carving books at home for similar models and, not finding them looked online. Finally, I found only one that echoed the ribbon work.
After frustrating myself for several hours, I went to bed and, like all too often, dreamed about the issue. In the dream, my old mentor Warburton was scoffing at me and pointing out that the style or Period of the piece mattered very little. “It’s the design intent of the artist that’s important. Whitespace Louis, whitespace”. Later the next day, while looking at the photos, I realized that among the reasons I admired the carver’s technique and design was because of his restraint in how he filled the space available space is filled. What is not filled with the design is as important as what is. Additionally, the design is well balanced as a mass within the tablet it occupies. Yes, Mr. Warbuton, Whitespace. I’ve always admired the virtuosity of the Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical carvers. Well, to be fair, I’ve envied their mastery of the craft. But, while respecting them, I never wanted to follow them. I’ve always found the majority of the work to be too crowded.
And that’s why I like Ebenezer Dearing’s carving. Proper use of whitespace.
The buzz among some of those studying traditional crafts was that they were not entirely sure that Louis Charpentier was “really” traditional. His roots in rural Quebec carving animal figures for an Ark were unimpeachable. His decades of service as a designer for a plastics manufacturer worried some. But, carving plastic, Carving styrofoam? For some, these placed him beyond the pale. Their opinion did not bother Louie one bit. He joyfully carved all and any appropriate material with his industrial carving machine. The machine was a large motor with chucks on either end. In the chucks were the sort of burrs you might use in a Dremel tool, but more robust. Using a wide variety of burrs and bits, he effortlessly carved anything from a dragon to a deer. He seemed to be a traditional carver turned loose in a machine shop. Louie just perceived the machine as an extension of his hands and mind. The tool or material did not matter it was the crafter that was important. One of my favorite Louie stories happened one day while I was visiting his home in Leominster, MA. The conversation came around to what sort of work he did for the plastics company most often. He paused, went into his bedroom closet and then returned with several shopping bags of buttons. The bags were full of buttons and represented a significant amount of Louie’s output over much of his career. Think about it someone had to create the original. Then the molds get made so millions of copies can be injection molded. Many of the buttons Louie created are still in production today. Most people in Central Massachusetts remember Louis Charpentier for his annual Christmas display outside his Leominster home. Louie would work for months on the figures. Each year many of the items were new. Louie would buy sheets of white Styrofoam, carve them into shape with an old steak knife, and glue up the pieces with toothpicks and carpenters glue. It was the Styrofoam that most irked folk art purists; that merely amused Louie.
So, as I stated in the title materials and tools do not the artist make
This gem of an eagle was waiting for me inside one of the Jefferson St. houses at the Strawberry Banke Museum. If you are familiar with the Great Seal of the United States, you’ll see where the carver found his design inspiration.
There are notable design differences between the Great Seal and this eagle, however. The stars are on a blue field behind the head of the eagle, not in a rayed circular device over its head. The banner bearing the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM” is gracefully scrolled through the eagle’s beak and across the wings rather than through the beak and upwards between the wings. Rather than thirteen arrows, the carver made five. The legs also have a bend in them rather than sticking straight out, and the tail feathers are nor fanned out as in the Seal.
In reading the history of the Seal, you would see that it’s authorized by Congress to have thirteen arrows. One rendition of the Seal that was in use for many years had only six; never represented with five. Careful examination of the shield also shows some liberties with the design; check and see if you can find them. The claws and feet of birds can be challenging. The feet on this birdie are masterfully figured and detailed.
A canopy surmounted the eagle with drapery swags hanging down. Similar swags saw use in both architectural carving and marine carving ( on a ships quarter galleries at the stern). The artist or the client wanted to suggest the Seal, but not blindly replicate it. There are legal limitations on portraying the Seal for other than official use, so it could be that the client was interested in avoiding censure.
OK, in my opinion, most of the variations improve upon the design, and I opine that the artist felt the same way. I’d suggest that the wood is native pine and that the artist if not a maritime carver, was very familiar with the techniques and preferences of that art.
The artist was influenced by the work of Samual McIntire of Salem. The neck and carving of the feathered crest of the head suggest that influence. The curators at Strawberry Banke have dated the piece as circa 1890. The artist is unknown. I wish I knew more about the artist and the article. If you have any clues, let me know.
I carve wood; some people carve bone, soap, and artificial substances that mimic illegal Ivory. The little face in the photo above was carved from an apple by a folk artist who visited the folklife center I used to run. The little apple figure she gifted me started a spate of apple carving around the house. Running up to Halloween, my kids were just old enough and responsible enough to wield a serrated edge knife against a cored apple. Soon, they created a display of shrunken heads that looked very real; witches and some unflattering portraits of parents. I bring this up because, in many areas, apples are ripening. So there are always “drops” and fruit that won’t be suitable pie or fruit bowl. On the other hand, carving apple heads might be a fun fall activity. Core the fruit first, and stuff the cavity with something absorbent and a wire armature. Then, go ahead and carve, but remember that too fine detail will be lost as the apple dries out. Also, please don’t leave the absorbent material in the center of the cored apple so long that it molds. This little apple head has to be thirty years old. The effect is made with the addition of the little blue eyes. Have fun.
During the nineties, I frequently went into the old Boston Navy Yard to have lunch with my friend Bill Bromell. Bill was the model maker at the Constitution Museum and had an absolutely to die for shop above the Constitution’s maintenance shop. Going to visit was one way of ensuring that my friend, who was just a bit of an eccentric, got out for some fresh air. One day, we were walking through the maintenance shop on our way to lunch and stopped to watch one of the carpenters working on the transom eagle seen in the picture I’ve attached. I was doing the traditional carver’s routine of looking at all the details of someone else’s work when I noticed the paint pot nearby and the sad look on the carpenter’s face. We did the usual thing and asked what was wrong. He explained that he had just finished carefully stripping the old bird and was about to prime it before it was re-installed. It was carved in 1910 of Ponderosa pine ( not wood we’d generally look to these days for carving, but old-growth? That might be a different story). This eagle was probably a replacement for something earlier. Carved wood on vessels does not last forever. It turned out that he’d just finished stripping multiple layers of old paint. Wood on vessels needs paint or varnish to aid in preservation. But, the detail disappears. And, the detail on this eagle’s bare wood was incredible. The carver had been interested in creating an accurate portrayal of each feather. I felt a pang of sympathy for the carver who created such beauty, knowing that it would get covered in paint.
I remembered back to my own Navy days. And recalling the old rubric that “if it moves – salute it. If it doesn’t paint it,” I asked: How many coats did you take off it? 56, he said. I thought about the average bosun and the average bosun’s frame of mind when confronted with keeping the deck division busy: ” Hey you! Johnson! Rig a bosun’s chair and paint the bloody eagle.” I understood the sadness of both the carpenter and generations of seaman Johnsons.
In the sixties, I hung out with an interesting cast of characters. We sang folksongs, played guitar, held forth loudly on topics about which we knew little, and held in contempt those who we knew were not as cool as we. We amused ourselves with simple, sometimes stupid games. One of the games we enjoyed playing was called sacrilegious roulette. It was best played by candlelight after all higher thought processes had gotten shut down by beer. The rules were simple: we sat around in a circle and blasphemed. The first struck by lighting won. Many of my friends were Boston College dropouts, and had a Jesuitical knowledge of what was deemed blasphemous. one of my friends had even lost his “vocation” as a Jesuit. It was the former Jebbie who came up with the most astounding blasphemy. But, we remained unsmitten.
One day while driving to Newport, Rhode Island, for the Folk Festival. We were playing a particularly vicious round of sacrilegious roulette when we suddenly blew a front tire and swerved off the road into a rock outcropping. The car was a wreck, but the five of us were not hurt.
We all agreed that we had played our final round of sacrilegious roulette. Fortunately, we had come out with a draw.
Ego? Sure, I do. Why else would I have done all those shows? Blog posts and blather about my carving from one end of the internet to the other! I guess mine is as healthy as anybody else’s. But you know who I admire? It’s the woman or man who carved this little portrait. Its hidden away on a back alley on Rockport’s Bearskin Neck. The person who carved it had to have known that 99% of the people passing by would never notice it. But, there it is anyway. Obscure and hidden. Now that’s self-confidence. The knowledge that your work stands on its own—a genuinely audacious lack of concern that your art receives admiration. Except by the 1%, who’ll acknowledge what you already know. Bravo!
The gilt-edged age for the ship carver had to have been the 17th and 18th centuries. The figureheads were the least of it. There were gilded coats of arms, allegorical figures, swags, and elaborately carved moldings everywhere. Set sail, wind up in a storm, get into a dust-up with the Dread Pirate Roberts or meet up with a French corsair, and when you came back into port, watch the carvers bill rachet skyward. Those cherubs on the starboard Quarter gallery? Somebody’s cannon blew away? They need replacing. I doubt that carvers grew wealthy. But, there was steady work. Think of it as a handy 17th and 18th-century body shop for ships. “Here’s the estimate- we can try to save that Neptunas Rex on the transom, but it’s cheaper to replace.” Sometime in the Napoleonic Wars, the British Admiralty began to budget the purse into which captains could dip for replacement swag. Just so much for a frigate, this for a fifth-rate, that for a third and so on. I’ve suspected that the Admiralty knew that some skippers and bosuns were in on a deal with with the carvers – ” I’ve got some cherubs this week buy them from me rather than Smithwick, and I’ll kickback 5%.” The fine art of naval chicanery in practice. Thus began the inexorable decline and fall of the honorable trade of ships carver. Over on this side of the Atlantic, there were no royal purses to fund tons of gilded frippery. During the glory days of American sail, journalists would visit the docks and write a commentary on which newly arrived vessels were most tastefully attired. Many Maritime Museums display the fine figureheads that once graced the bows of the clippers.
Then along came the Quakers. They caused crews to mutiny by taking figureheads off vessels and replacing them with sober billet heads. Sail without our Jeremey Bentham figurehead? Never. Figureheads continued to have their day for a while. But, gradually, more modest accouterments became the rule. The cost was part of the reason; fancy carvings were expensive to maintain. The following photos are from the U.S.S. Constitution Museum (for a detailed article on the Constitutions bow candy dip into this Article: https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/2017/03/03/bow-decor/)
The first photo came off the Constitution, and the second came from H.M.S. Cyane. Both are good representations of early 19th naval billet heads, spare and none too fancy. But, great representations of the carver’s art.
Compared to the two-headed equestrian figurehead ( circa 1750, in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum), the billet heads appear downright dowdy. The final billet heads are from the Penobscot Bay Maritime Museums collection. They have the distinction of being in mint condition Carved by either Thomas or W.L. Seavy of Bangor, Maine. They never were mounted on a ship and represent the end of billet heads for commercial shipping.
Here is a shot of more recent work on a contemporary sailboat.
Lastly, here is a ridiculous bit of plastic on an otherwise pretty boat.