Wizardry in Wood

One of the greatest thrills of being Master is seeing at close hand what other Livery Companies get up to, particularly those who still promote their ancient craft. This week my wife and I visited Wizardry in Wood, an exhibition held every four years by the Turners’ Company to promote outstanding woodturning and introduce individual Turners to a wider public. Appropriately enough the exhibition was staged in Carpenters’ Hall, a beautiful example of craftsmanship in wood.

The exhibition featured

  • works by over 70 leading UK and international contemporary turners
  • two extensive, curated collections of outstanding modern and historical pieces – from the Daniel Collection and the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
  • live demonstrations of the craft
  • winners of the Turners’ Company 2016 Competitions, itself a biennial event

Many of the items were on sale, sometimes at eye watering prices, but when you take into account the many hours of painstaking work that goes into each piece, these were entirely justified. The exhibitors were all willing, indeed keen, not just to show their work but also to discuss it and explain how remarkable effects were achieved. We saw wood that looked like metal. We saw designs so intricate that they could be lace. That effect is achieved using a dentist’s drill. We also saw amazing airbrushing and ceramic effects.

Showcasing the best contemporary and traditional turning, the first Wizardry in Wood exhibition was held by the Company in 2004 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its Royal Charter. But the history of the Company is much older than that. It was already a guild in the 12th century. Some 200 years later, Edward III decreed that ‘wooden measures, as well for wine as for ale’ should made only by ‘turnours’ with marks of their own – and so the medieval turners established the English ‘pint’ as an official measure. In 1604 the Company received its Royal Charter from James I. To this day the Company continues to celebrate and support the ‘art or mysterie’ of turning. The ancient craft of turning is still widely practised, hundreds of turned objects being produced daily, mainly of wood and metal, for domestic use and as industrial components.

The craft of turning is the skilful and judicious use of the lathe, the mother of all machine tools, to produce items from a variety of materials to the requisite form, dimensions and finish. From the earliest days, the work-piece, usually of wood, was held between two centres. In the pole lathe, the rotational power came from a long whippy branch driven down by the operator’s foot. In the bow lathe, a bow was pushed and pulled by the operator’s arm. Both types are still in use throughout the world today and there is a small but growing interest in the UK in the pole lathe as a country craft.

As the work-piece revolves, cutting tools, such as chisels and gouges, are pressed against it to produce a rounded shape, which is varied to produce the finished article. Over the years, these machines have been improved and augmented by the use of metal and the cranked foot pedal, allowing continuous one-way operation and, finally, the electric motor. The products of the turner’s craft were wooden measures and a great variety of small objects used in the home, on the farm and in industry. The turner has always played an important part in furniture making, providing table and chair legs, rails, chair spindles and much embellishment. For centuries, he has turned the balusters of staircases, landings and balconies for buildings, and for the poops and sterns, as well as pulleys and many other wooden components used on sailing vessels.

From early in the 17th century, the concept of ornamental turning, as opposed to plain turning, developed. Here the work-piece is static, rotated slowly or in measured increments, either concentrically or eccentrically, whilst being shaped by a fast cutting tool. The result is an ornamental finished shape, such as a chess piece, unobtainable by simple rotation.  In the late 18th century, ornamental turning was much taken up by the nobility and the gentry as a hobby. It remains as a skill complementary to plain turning, and art-turners of today make increasing use of ornamental turning.

Unlike the products of the potter, wooden objects are perishable, so the earliest date of turning is not known exactly. However, turned wooden bowls, excavated from peat bogs at prehistoric levels, show that the craft is certainly many thousands of years old. As with many of the older livery companies the exact origins of the Guild of Turners are unknown. But by 1310 turners were in a position of some authority in their own craft. They were sworn before the Mayor and Aldermen not to make any other measures than gallons, two quarts, quarts, pints and half-pints and to bring to Guildhall any false measures wherever found. In 1347 this was further refined that each measure must conform to the standard of the Alderman of the Ward in which they were used. Each turner was to have a mark of his own, to be placed on the bottom of his measures when they had been examined and found to reach the standard. The Turners were given a virtual monopoly of the sale of measures.

In 1435 a petition was granted that the officials of the Guild were authorised to examine all wooden measures, which were to be offered for sale in the City. This right of search and oversight of turned goods in the City was exercised for at least 300 years – well into the 18th century.

However, the Company’s fortunes declined in the 18th century, perhaps because from the time of Queen Anne onwards styles of furniture changed against them. At the same time, the Livery Companies generally, were tending to decline as an economic and political force. This was an inevitable result of the expansion of trade and the influx of population, which burst the bonds with which the medieval guilds had sought to control their respective trades.

But in the 19th century the Turners saw a strong revival with a new spirit of revival, reform and usefulness appropriate to a new age. In 1876 W.E. Gladstone was admitted to the Livery. This resurgence brought about a revival of interest in the ancient craft of turning, and the Company instituted competitions and exhibitions, open to any workman or apprentice in England, for turnery, at first in wood, later also in metal and other materials, such as ivory, glass and pottery.

No fewer than eight Turners served the office of Lord Mayor in the 75 years from 1874 to 1949, a remarkable achievement for a minor company of no wealth – its total investment income in 1900 was £74 – and little influence in civic affairs. More recently, in 2013, Honorary Liveryman Dame Fiona Woolf CBE became only the second female to serve in the office of Lord Mayor in its 800-year history.

It was splendid for me to see such an old company be true to its roots and its values and work so hard to keep its ancient traditions of craft, utility and beauty in equal measure, alive. Supporting the exhibition were the so-called Liveries Wood Group which includes the Worshipful Companies of Carpenters, Joiners and Ceilers, Upholders, Basketmakers, Wheelwrights and Furniture Makers. Similarly, earlier in the year I thoroughly enjoyed the Pewterers’ exhibition Pewter Live which also displayed modern marvels of designs in pewter. Last month my wife and I went to the opening of the Goldsmiths’ Fair where astonishing designs in jewellery were on show. I only just managed to keep my wallet in my pocket.

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