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: Three Centuries of Wood Carving


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
A group of old English objects have recently come from London to enrich the period rooms of the Institute.The earliest is a Gothic statuette of a bishop 35 1/2 inches high carved in oak and effectively polychromed, according to the custom of the Middle Ages. The style suggests the fifteenth century, possibly the first quarter. The bishop stands with his foot on a heretic, and possibly is, therefore, the bishop of Lincoln, who was frequently so represented. The figure is modeled as though felt with certainty, and the head is carved with simplicity and character. As the Institute's Gothic Room has hitherto contained no English work, this statuette will be a welcome addition.The Age of Elizabeth was the earliest to produce much household furniture, and the simple Elizabethan chest shown on page 11 is a characteristic example. Panels and frame are hewn out of solid oak in the manner of the time, which was none too gentle—if one may judge from the conversation in the Shakespeare plays. The "linen-fold" ornament of the front panels is a lingering of a Gothic motive which persisted well into the century following Elizabeth.Of greater interest is the octagonal table shown on the front page, dating, according to an inscription carved on the top, from 1688, "Edmund Sainte George. III Jacobus 2d. Rex. D. G." The table, together with the chest and the statuette of Anselm mentioned below, came from the collection of the Earl of Shrewsbury, an ancient family—the twentieth earl of the line succeeded to the earldom in 1877—who are presumed to have possessed these pieces a long time; both the table and the "Anselm" came from the family chapel on the estate of Alton Towers, Cheadle. There is no information at hand to connect the inscription with the family in 1688, but the "Jacobus 2d" is clear enough as to date. Our table is described as a "Font-table" and was probably used to support the basin of baptismal water on occasions of a family christening.Tables of the seventeenth century assumed a variety of forms, after the heavy rectangular models of the Elizabethan period. The gate-legged table, reproduced so often today, and triangular and octagonal forms came into use to add variety and homelikeness to the living room.This table is elaborately carved with Jacobean motives, some indigenous but more derived from Italian architecture—for the Renaissance had reached England—and many from Persian art. The human figures at the corners are clearly Persian, and many of the flat patterns are suggestive of Persian textiles. Classical and Persian influences ran side by side throughout the Renaissance, and England adopted a large share of Persian influence. The character of the carving has, of course, none of the elegance of Italy nor the sensibility of Persia; for the British craftsmen remained a provincial islander, hewing away at his oak with picturesque forcefulness. It is his Anglo-Saxon character which attracts us to him.The statuette of "Anselm," 35 1/2 inches high, from the chapel at Alton Towers, is carved from oak and shows more of the formalism of the latter part of the seventeenth century, when classical art had imposed itself on English architecture and literature. The firm and gentle monk-scholar and philosopher—who 800 years ago accepted the burden of the archbishopric of Canterbury, and successfully upheld the authority of Rome against the headstrong kings, William II and Henry I, is skillfully turned into a decorative church figure. The difference between the England of Chaucer and that of Alexander Pope is seen in a comparison of the Gothic "Bishop of Lincoln" and the Renaissance "Anselm."Referenced Works of Art
  1. Octagonal Table, XVII century
  2. Bishop, XV century
  3. Elizabethan Chest, XVI century
  4. Details of Table on Front Page
  5. Anselm, XVII century
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Source: Rossiter Howard, "Three Centuries of Wood Carving," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 9, no. 2 (February, 1920): 9-11.

Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009