Woodcarving has been practised since time immemorial, an art form that blossomed when pieces of wood and a bloke with a knife came together; a craft borne out of the necessity to make tools and implements, with the maker's personal design becoming increasingly more decorative.
We are able to delve into the history of this organic artistry and uncover the work of countless unknown individuals whose splendid interpretations of life, their beliefs and fears, are on display, for example in parish churches the length and breadth of the country, especially in misericord carvings.
But there are also those who we know by name, who came to prominence when wood carving began to steal the limelight in the palaces and great houses of Europe, and there is one man in particular who stands head and shoulders above the rest — Grinling Gibbons. He was born in Rotterdam in 1648 of English parents and came to England in around 1667. His talent was discovered by chance in 1671 by the diarist John Evelyn, who wrote: "I saw the young man at his carving, by the light of a candle. I saw him engaged on a carved representation of Tintoretto's ‘Crucifixion.’ Gibbons was hailed as a wondrous craftsman even from that first encounter. By 1693 he had accepted commissions from King Charles II and was appointed master carver to the royal household.
His carvings were so exquisite (he used lime wood for the majority of his work), his ability at the time may well have been taken for granted, and his genius not fully appreciated until after his death. There are times when we all suffer a little from taking things for granted, so when Cradley mon Bryn Williams dropped into Bugle House with his latest wood carving, a piece of art work created using two different kinds of wood, it suddenly dawned upon us that perhaps Bryn has now become the Black Country's very own Grinling Gibbons. Over several years Bryn has brought his carvings to our attention, whether they have been in wood or horn, and each time his skill has been acknowledged.
But he isn't the sort of chap to rest on his laurels and has always got a project in mind and a carving to complete, a passion that Gibbons himself would have admired. We pooled together all the photographs we had in the Bugle archives of Bryn's work (some of which are shown here), and an impressive collection it has become; his marvellous walking-stick handles; the carving he did of his granddad as a chainmaker; his interpretation of cahinmakers’ heroine Mary Macarthur; and more recently Lutley Mon, based on the legendary and mystical Green Man.
Every time Bryn shows us a new carving, the unveiling ceremony takes on an air of theatre, and unravelling the protective wrappings on his latest work of art heightened the anticipation.
But before all was revealed Bryn told us, "I was walking Wychbury Hill and came across a burr of a yew tree when an idea immediately sprang to mind. I wanted to work a sizeable chunk of Gloucestershire pear wood I had been given and blend it with the burr, adding perhaps a little more yew to the finished article.
“Using different kinds of wood with various shades adds an extra dimension to carvings, and at the same time I was keen to have a bash at working the pear wood which I had been told was ideal for intricate detail. It's difficult to determine how long it takes to complete a carving because I'm not whittling away from dawn till dusk, several days on the spin. But dipping in and out, an hour here and an hour there, seems to suit me best, so I reckon it's taken me about two months this last time, from hatching the idea to the finished product."
Needless to say the carving, as the picture reveals, is a terrific combination of detail and character, a non-human being emerging from the bark of a tree as it pushes down on one hand to haul itself up, and clutches a staff with the other. One of its eyes is open and staring, and a leaf is issuing from its mouth. Like Lutley Mon before, this new character needed a name but Bryn hadn't thought of one. It was therefore proposed that perhaps Bugle readers might like to chip in with a name to suit its character, the best of which Bryn would subsequently add to the carving. If any readers would like to suggest a name, please contact us here at Bugle House. In the meantime let us applaud Bryn Williams, a master carver in every sense of the word.