"I do not think that any man but one of the highest genius could do anything in those days without much study of ancient art, and even he would be much hindered if he lacked it."-William Morris.
The purpose of this chapter is to indicate the extreme antiquity of general craftwork, the very beginning of which can fairly be stated to have commenced when prehistoric man fashioned his primitive weapons and implements for defence, attack, and sustenance.
A study of prehistoric examples of craftsmanship in the various national museums will show their manipulative and artistic skill advanced to a considerable degree. Progress in decoration and manipulation proceeded simultaneously, as is evident from existing examples of their production. The Palaeolithic-or Early Stone Age-dates back roughly some 7000 years according to authorities on this subject, although with them the dates of periods can only be conjectured. Following this Age or period are the Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages, so named because of the materials chiefly employed during these periods. Although the general growth of constructive and decorative craftwork did not proceed simultaneously in all countries, authorities agree that stone preceded the use of metal in practically every part of the world, including all parts of Europe, Egypt, China, Japan, and America, the growth of prehistoric work in each of those countries having definite national characteristics, and worthy of close study by students of modern handcraft. Space forbids more than a very rapid survey of this aspect of our subject.
The artistic treatment of animal forms during the Early Stone Age is shown in Fig. 1, an engraved bone or mammoth ivory from Trou des Forges, Bruniquel, France, of exceptional artistic interest. It belongs to the Palaeolithic Age and is now in the British Museum. Flint and bone appear to have been the chief media employed, but it should be remembered that the perishable nature of wood has naturally acted against the preservation of objects fashioned from this material. During the Neolithic or later Stone Age we find more instances of woodworking. Actual examples preserved in collections show that wood was used to some extent for handles of flint knives and axes, generally as a supplementary material to the common use of flint. The Bronze Age marks the introduction of a new material and an increased degree of workmanship and artistic skill, due in some measure to the use of a more sympathetic material, having less limitations than the preceding media.
An interesting feature of this age is the number of bronze celts, which were attached or " hafted " to wooden handles or hafts, and secured by binding with thongs. At the end of this period gold is introduced as a material, fine examples of this work being exhibited in the gold room of the British Museum. Canoes and the lake dwellings of the Swiss also point to an extended use of timber. The Iron Age is especially rich in artistic examples, especially of metal decorated with highly coloured enamels.
The first historical records on which reliance can be safely placed are those of Ancient Egypt, and they provide a fertile source of study. One of the earliest specimens of Egyptian art in wood is that illustrated in Fig. 2, a wood statue of the so-called Shekh el Beled, found in a tomb at Sakkara. Prof. Flinders Petrie, in his "Art and Crafts of Ancient Egypt," says, "the eyes are excellent in form, but affected by the technical detail of inserting the eyeball of stone and crystal in a copper frame," thus indicating an amount of technical skill combined with artistic appreciation, though the latter is not in accordance with modern ideas. Prof. Flinders Petrie also states that the original figure was covered with a coat of coloured stucco. Of ancient Egyptian furniture there are numerous examples in the British Museum, including workmen's stools, vase stands, a folding stool, and a seat of ebony inlaid with ivory. These display remarkable artistic merit, and show due appreciation of the important factor in modern handcraft, viz. fitness for a given purpose. Technically also these examples are interesting, showing mortise and tenon joints, evidences of the use of glue, and turned work, indicating no small degree of manipulative skill in this branch of handcraft. Two examples are illustrated in Fig. 3. Ebony, acacia, cedar, and sycamore woods were all employed, whilst ivory obtained from the hippopotamus and elephant was utilized for inlaying. Mummy cases, chairs with side arms, caskets, and beds were executed in wood and decorated with inlaying, carving, and painted or stucco decoration. In Greek literature we find considerable evidences of craftwork. Homer's
Fig. i.-Examples of animal forms in prehistoric art.
"Odysseyis especially rich in references, some of which are quoted in later parts of this book. Craftwork was regarded as of importance, as is evident from the following quotation from Book XXIII of the "Odyssey". Odysseus describing the bride bed to Penelope :Next I sheared off all the light wood of the long leaved olive, and rough hewed the trunk upwards from the root, and smoothed it round with the adze, well and skilfully, and made straight the line thereto and so fashioned it into the bedpost. And I bored it all with the auger. Beginning at this headpost, I wrought at the bedstead until I had finished it, and made it fair with inlaid work of gold, and of silver and of ivory.The Bible also affords us numerous evidences of woodworking, the description of the building of King Solomon's temple being noteworthy, as is also the description of his throne. The ark, according to James Napier in his "Manufacturing Arts in Ancient Times,took twenty-five thousand loads of timber in its construction, and the instructions to Noah,make thee an ark of gopher wood," etc., indicates the material employed. In Eastern countries, notably India, craftwork is possessed also of ancient traditions; fine carvings, inlay, and other decoration applied to wood and metal have been for centuries produced in abundance. Omitting prehistoric work in England, and much work produced by the Romans here, craft-work in wood and metal does not appear to have made much headway until the sixteenth century, although previous to that date some noteworthy work in stone, chiefly ecclesiastical, had been produced. Wood and metalwork developed almost simultaneously, most early pieces of British craftwork exhibiting a combination of these materials, characterized by crude craftsmanship and of but little artistic merit. Gothic work is the exception, and following that period the English Renaissance, beginning in the reign of Henry VII, saw English woodwork developed through the rich periods of Elizabeth, James, and Cromwell to the early Georgian era which began with William and Mary and Queen Anne. (These and successive periods cannot be better studied than by personal observation in our museums, or from the numerous excellent treatises devoted to historic English furniture and decorative objects.) Great architects such as Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren, the Brothers Adam, and designer-craftsmen including Grinling Gibbons, Sheraton, Chippendale, and Heppelwhite each contributed to the general development of artistic woodwork in England, and nearly all of them have left writings and drawings of their own, which can be studied in our national libraries and museums.
Fig. 2.-One of the earliest examples of sculpture in wood.