Carving in Depth

I have heard antique dealers praise the depth of carving on pieces as if it were an automatic indicator of quality, particularly in regards to rococo furniture. For the most part, it is true. The depth of carving can make a mirror or a bracket or even a chair or table, more valuable. Where it isn’t true is when the carver just did not have the experience that enabled him to comprehend the three dimensional task. You might think that most 18th century carvers could do it and for the most part they probably could. However, there are exceptions.

The essence of great carving is in the flow of line and consistency of detail. There is a dynamism created not just by the design but by a carver’s ability to express the design. For example, most rococo mirrors are fairly straightforward having columnar sides, scrolls flanking the columns and one the base, some interlaced foliage and rocaille to fill in the spaces. It is a straightforward formula, but then there are mirrors that sing and those that croak and the depth of carving has little to do with the reason why.

It would be easy to see that great depth in carving has no relevance to a great quality mirror. It does, however, because when a carver can put things into three dimensions, they are just more interesting than those that are in two. I once had a mirror that was very shallow, very little depth to the carving at all. However, the carver really understood design and did a wonderful job at creating a beautiful mirror frame. However, I also had a frame that was deeply carved by a master of the genre. I liked the first frame and appreciated it a great deal, but I loved the second frame and wish I had it still.

Some of the greatest carving you will see for skill is the German Renaissance carving. It is superb, but it would be incongruous on a piece of furniture. Fine, detailed work does not necessarily make a piece of furniture well carved. As I said yesterday, flow and dynamic tension are a function of the skill of the carver and on furniture, it requires the ability to sculpt, design and execute. For an example of someone who did it well, look at Luke Lightfoot’s work at Claydon House.

Getting back to the chair that sold at Sotheby’s London on June 8 for one hundred and eight thousand pounds (I have said that was over $200,000, but it is just under that amount) I would critique it less for its carving than for the chair itself. It is awkward. It is oversized and because of that the proportions are awkward–the legs feel undersized, the arms excessively stiff, the armrests too small and the back is stiff with little curvature either vertically or horizontally.

It is the carving that is the source of value, however. I have to admit to really liking the photograph of the chair in the catalogue. I almost want to second guess my dislike of the chair. However, I do remember it in the gallery and it was not prepossessing at all. It felt prissy, more like a canvas for a carver to demonstrate his stuff on, but an insufficient one. For me, the chair is not a success because the chair itself is not a success and all the window dressing of fine carving doesn’t carry it where the chair can never go.

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