Wood has been used in the creation of works of art for as long as people have been moved to create. The nature of wood is that each piece is absolutely unique. Inspiration can be drawn from the creativity that nature put into the making of a tree, often long before the artist was even born.
Wood was first used as a printing block two thousand years ago for printing onto textiles in China, India and Egypt. The practice spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, reaching a peak of perfection at the end of the Renaissance in France and England. For machine printing in England, the designs were cut onto rollers, but hand-printing continued using blocks laminated from fruit wood (usually pear), plane and sycamore. Fruitwoods were also most commonly used in paper printing and were cut with a knife with the grain running along the block. By the second half of the 15th century, woodcuts were being used to accompany text, notably in Germany, the most common application was the production of playing cards. Metal plates were used throughout most of the late 18th century until the English artist, Thomas Bewick, matched the quality of metal blocks by using boxwood, with facing endgrain, which allowed a far greater level of intricacy to be achieved. Woodcuts are still in use today, but as more of an art form than ever. Letter poster art, the last bastion of woodcuts, is now generally carried out on computer.
The word ‘treen’ literally means ‘of trees’ and it is used to refer to the collection of items made from wood which people used to have. These would include items as commonplace as bowls, mugs, forks, spoons and all manner of things carved by hand from a single piece of wood. Crafts people would make everyday items and sell or barter them. Nowadays, pure treen, defined as that made before mass production (pre-1830), is collectable and becoming increasingly hard to find.
Europe was the starting point of the toy manufacturing industry. The abundant supply of wood and the quantity of fast-flowing streams to power lathes, meant that it was simple to set up in work. With the long dark winter evenings limiting outdoor work, whole families turned to the manufacture of toys, which they then sold to travellers or at local market places. From the 14th century, Nuremberg in Southern Germany was famous for its toys, and its rigorous system of guilds regulating the type of work done by each craftsman. It was generally accepted that spruce and larch were used for cheap toys, lime, beech and ash for carved models, and boxwood for items which would face the hardest wear and tear. In the 1700s, a European fashion gained momentum which saw the creation of great collections of miniature furniture items all made for display purposes. This led to the building of the first doll houses. These miniature houses were incredibly realistic, although at times, the realism was taken to extremes, with roughly hewn furniture being installed below stairs and finely detailed and beautifully ornate work above stairs. These houses were often built by master craftsmen such as Chippendale. Techniques were exported to America. Before long and soon centres of production were located along the eastern coast, based on the remarkable range of timber available, including basswood, hickory, chestnut and rock maple being the most useful. Their toys were strong and reflected their pioneering lifestyle, with toy guns being made from hollow elder branches and fishing rods from ash tipped with lancewood.
American folk art
It was in the small towns and homesteads of the 18th and 19th centuries that a world of folk art emerged with whittled and carved wood as the clear movement leader. Much of the work was produced by farmers and workers who were idle in the evenings and used to working with the hand and eye. The work was mainly crude and simple, but some of the pieces were remarkably detailed and of a very high standard. Much of the work reflected the origins and beliefs of the artist. On both sides of the Atlantic, a lot of the work was concerned with decoy manufacture, where birds were accurately carved and painted to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing. These would be placed in fields or on fences and would attract the real birds for the farmer to shoot.