…Never to Return

It’s a simple truism in every sense. An era has passed, never to return. Look into any past culture anywhere on the globe and you can trace perspectives on art of the day for that era. Each continent has expressed who it is in multidimensional works of art crafted by the human eye and hand. This expressionism seems to permeate every culture be that wherever life is lived out by the human group.

In reality this historical expressioning marks the punctuation of a culture that existed in the making of it there in that past expanse of an era and is typically a period no one will or can ever, ever repeat or return to. I have spent time returning to the craftsmen that carved wood and stone to shape some of Oxford City city centre that’s exemplified in the college buildings of what we call Oxford University.

With 39 colleges and Permanent Private Halls it would take me years to document the woodwork in even just two or three of the colleges: decades and even a lifetime.

The deep seat of craftsmanship surrounding students and academics alike is perhaps seldom really acknowledged and yet, in my view for one at least, surely it deserves the same recognition attributed to the most premium of students who graced those lofty portals.

The colleges are a bit like cathedrals in that they offer the worship of education but the craftsmen that built those immense structures with such skill and care are left as the unknown and unacknowledged. It’s the designers that take pride of place of course and well deserved that is too. I feel that as woodworkers we might put the crafting artisans on the pedestal of creativity knowing that the designers did have right of ownership but only in part.

Without woodworkers of every kind, blacksmiths and engineers, stonemasons and perhaps a hundred more crafts by thousands upon thousands of artisans spanning centuries worth of generations we would know nothing of the now silent arts of the eras past.

There are fifty of these bench ends carved for this area of a single building alone.

Below, in the seating chamber, are the benches of the great debaters of the age. Think Churchill types as a starting point and you see where I am coming from. Now that the patina from thousands of passing bodies is established in the art work, we will see how long these buildings have kept the history within the carvings from an artisan and his gouges. The tributes are as always enshrined in the anonymity of the carver.

No one will ever know the name or the background of the man carver that made such beautiful statements, testaments to skilled working. In the realness of life most artisans are unknowns within a few weeks, months and years of completing their art, if indeed they were ever known beyond the small cluster group of other fellow artisans they worked alongside. How much more those artists of centuries ago!

23 Comments

  1. Tom Angle on 21 October 2019 at 7:34 pm

    I would like to walk around too look at the craftsmanship there.



    • Dave on 28 October 2019 at 12:26 pm

      The craftsmanship reminds me of Jude the Obscure, a stone mason, that built the university, but could not attend. Something noble and humble in his work..



    • Dave Murphy USA on 28 October 2019 at 12:34 pm

      Keep in mind that all of these fine craftsmen worked without the benefits of electricity for lighting or power tools, computers, and the technology we take for granted today that provides patterns and skill training.



  2. Tom Tuthill on 21 October 2019 at 8:33 pm

    Wonderful tribute to those forgotten artisans.



  3. nemo on 21 October 2019 at 10:27 pm

    “The colleges are a bit like cathedrals in that they offer the worship of education”. As Robert Pirsig called it, ‘the church of reason’.

    “but the craftsmen that built those immense structures with such skill and care are left as the unknown and unacknowledged.”

    The same goes for many of the old real churches and cathedrals too. Having gone on a ‘grand tour’ in secondary school, to Rome and Florence, visiting church after church after church (about a dozen a day), you get overwhelmed after a while. So much splendour, intricate woodwork, marble, statues. And each one of it made by undocumented workers, unlike the great popes and similar people. Even back then at the age of 17 I recall being impressed by the craftsmanship of those who made that all.

    Even our own local village catholic church, about 120 years old now, in neo-gothic style, had some pretty impressive woodwork. Solid oak benches too. About two decades ago they needed money to renovate the building and sold off all those benches to gather funds. My father bought one back then, only for the solid, seasoned oak. I thought he had gone mad to buy something like that. Now, a few decades later, I begin to understand why he did so.



  4. Ed Minch on 21 October 2019 at 10:46 pm

    3 generations of my ancestors worked together to carve the pews, rails and altar in a small church in Flotzheim Germany. Not very a big or impressive building, but still one of hundreds of churches with elaborate 17th century baroque woodwork. I have taken pictures of theirs and of similar work, and what they did measures up to the Big Boys, and they were just small town woodworkers.



    • Christopher Johnston on 23 October 2019 at 5:16 am

      Are the pictures available to view anywhere Ed>



  5. Stephen McGonigle on 21 October 2019 at 11:35 pm

    I too have often wondered about our forebears when looking at work from years gone by.

    I’m sure that where these long dead craftsmen aware that centuries later their work would be revered, that would be a reward in itself. They’d have been paid for their work as required, however the pride in achievement would have been something quite separate. While a craftsperson today will also carry out such work in order to make a living, there is also that quality amongst those that I’ve met which appreciates the acknowledgement of someone else’s appreciation of their work.

    In a sense therefore, when we look upon the creations of those past masters with gratitude, they are not forgotten. Their descendants probably don’t know who they were or what they created, and it’s not really important as to who they were, it’s simply important that we treasure the legacy that they left.

    Thomas Gray, in his poem ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ put it much better than I ever could;

    ‘Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
    Their homely joy’s, and destiny obscure;
    Nor Grandure hear with a disdainful smile
    The short and simple annuals of the poor.’



  6. Dave R on 22 October 2019 at 1:28 am

    Do we know for sure if they were all men craftsman? Might there have been a woman or two, possibly disguised as men in order to fulfill their longing to share their passion for handwork and artistic skills?



    • Paul G on 22 October 2019 at 3:14 pm

      Dave, of course nobody knows for certain, but it’s sort of a strawman argument to hypothesise that women also had a hand on the craftsmanship of the time. In the time when these buildings were constructed and fitted out, it was by men. That’s not to say anything in favour of one over the other, it’s just the practical truth. I’m glad that today there’s a more level field when it comes to being able to pursue a particular craft or trade but times past shouldn’t be reimagined just to fit a modern narrative.

      All the best,

      Paul



    • Paul Sellers on 22 October 2019 at 5:57 pm

      Not sure why the question but it’s highly doubtful as nothing has really changed at all over the past 400 years despite a great deal of effort to even out any disparity even over the five decades to date. I am hoping that this is in no way accusatory to the generations of men over the decades as structures like the buildings of Oxford were built by men and I have yet to find any vintage books depicting women in the realms of carpentry such as is depicted whereas many other crafts would have been shared and non gendered. I doubt any more that it is intimidation as it could have been in periods of time past. I don’t know of any gaps in the system disabling women from becoming carvers. Indeed my close friend Mary May who teaches mainly in the US and online has worked as a full time carver and earned her living from it in the face of one very great adversity mechanised routing with CNC machines which we all know has become ever-more ubiquitous in every school across the continents. What an amazing testimony she has been encouraging everyone into her craft. If I wanted to learn carving over again I would turn to her for her amazing skill in carving and instruction.



  7. Gierach James E. on 22 October 2019 at 1:50 am

    Fortunately, the reward to these artisans is in the doing itself. No one can ever take that from them and their time here — not even little wood-eating bugs. Or as Paul Sellers might say: It’s not who remembers what and how you made it but that you made it.



    • Dave Alvarez on 28 October 2019 at 11:02 am

      Well said, Gierach James E.



  8. Ed Baedke on 22 October 2019 at 5:22 am

    …And all this crafted by hand during a time that knew of no electric power tools with details that many crafters today would be challenged to replicate. Amazing. Thank you Paul for the photos and sharing you insights.



  9. Joseph Di Maio on 22 October 2019 at 4:29 pm

    I was stopped by this blog post and found myself in a reverie of over 40 years ago when I lucked upon some Grinling Gibbons carvings in pear wood.

    Thank you, Paul. I run my eyes over your photos and my fingertips can almost feel the carvings. Clearly, many generations have wondered at the skill and care that went into making them and were moved to preserve them. Maybe some of them even tried to emulate this focus in the things that they did. The work speaks to a different balance between time spent and object produced than is common now.

    Just a few questions: Are these benches still in use? Does each bench have a different carving? Could you tell what kind of wood was used for such crisp detail?



    • Paul Sellers on 22 October 2019 at 5:55 pm

      Yes, still in use full time as needed. Oak is the wood.



  10. Axel Meier on 22 October 2019 at 7:10 pm

    Dear Paul, dear fellow craftsmen
    There is a quotation attributed to Gustav Mahler saying:
    “Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.”
    On that note cheers to all for keeping it burning.



  11. Samuel on 23 October 2019 at 11:09 am

    There’s an ad on tv. Something about all the legends and heroes of the past have walked the same earth — it is amazing to think about the stream of time and new people bobbing in an out of relevance.
    Working historical buildings are powerful and I guess it does only apply because they have captured an essence from a wild and beautiful world outside. And the people lost to time as Paul comments.
    Even less ornate buildings of the past that used materials and workers that were from nearby have a special quality – cos they are relevant and real.
    I like wooden jetty’s…



  12. Mike on 23 October 2019 at 6:34 pm

    Hi Paul

    If you haven’t yet had a change, you might enjoy some of the carving and decorations in St Nicolas and St Helen’s churches in Abingdon. There’s not a great abundance of it, but there is some.



  13. Florian on 24 October 2019 at 9:57 pm

    I wonder whether the joinery and the carving was done in the same place or if the benches were joint and then the bench ends were sent to a workshop of specialist carvers before they were sent back to the joiners for assembly.
    Is it possible that all was done on (the building-) site?



  14. Steven Bergom on 25 October 2019 at 9:23 pm

    Reading this makes me want to perform an experiment. Take a selection of people of different occupations — architect, engineer, woodworker, astronomer, etc. — and lock them in a room at Oxford for 15 minutes. After letting them out, ask them what they saw. I am honestly curious as to how each of their backgrounds will flavor what they focus on in their observations.



    • Samuel on 26 October 2019 at 9:18 am

      Sounds like a pitch for a tv program. “Representatives of delegation earth”



    • Max Broome on 30 October 2019 at 4:55 pm

      I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that question. As a structural engineer, my family has always had to redirect my attention from the building’s structural system back to what ever event or display we were there to see. I never focused on the carvings at Notre Dame but marveled at the wooden structures supporting the massive roofs.



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