Carved Boxes: Old and New England
An eyeball magnet caught me as I entered the recent Wayside Inn show. Momentarily, it was the only thing I saw. The Snyder's had brought it, a previously undiscovered carved box from the Connecticut River Valley.
I've lived in the US long enough to appreciate the box's dry simplicity, its folky naivety. It has a charm that is totally different from the carved English boxes with which I am far more familiar, and which are, let's be brutal here, far, far superior in terms of their craftsmanship.
Compare the English Box with the American
English carvers grew up in a visual tradition suffused with carving going back at least five centuries to the eleventh-century Norman churches. First generation American joiners grew up in the same tradition, and their carving is thoroughly "English" in its quality -- Thomas Dennis is a case in point.
We can be sure that the unknown carver of the Snyders' box had not done his apprenticeship in England. Why? First because his technique is too crude, and second, because he did not possess any gouges or V-tools -- English apprentices were given a full set of tools by their masters when they qualified as journeymen.
Look at how a leaf is drawn on each box. The English carver has a set of gouges of different radii, and all curves were drawn with one or more vertical strikes of a gouge: a quick tap, then move the gouge along and tap again to continue the curve. The curves marked by the yellow pointers were drawn with the same, large radius gouge (possibly even the blade of a jack plane). Then on the edge of the leaf, the gouge was changed for one with a smaller radius to tighten the curve. On the leaf tips, all the veins were drawn by a single strike of a yet-smaller gouge. The circles were drawn by an even smaller gouge.
On the American box, the leaves and veins were done either by knife point or by a small chisel -- the carver apparently did not own a gouge at all. The carving is crude, charmingly so, but crude.
Another difference: The English carver had a matting punch, a tool about 1/2-inch by 1/4-inch with two rows of four points that he used to mat the background. The matting on the American box was done with the point of a nail: the carver did not own a matting punch.
One sophisticated, well-trained and well-equipped; the other folky, self-taught, and working without a single tool that was specifically designed for carving. Both boxes with merit, but very different. Incidentally, the American box was for sale at 18 times the price we sold the English one for.