Poetry in Wood Pt 2
Tuesday 20 January 2009
In the final part of this series, Michael Huntley examines Oriental timbers and their application
My appreciation of Chinese furniture and the West's fascination with it continues with an investigation into an 18th-century bed - pictured above. This is, essentially, a dais or low platform. It's made like a table but with larger-section timbers. The legs end with in-curving hoof feet enclosing a soft-mat sleeping platform. Above the dais, four posts, a lattice screen - the making of screens as dividers for rooms was a very important sub-craft within Chinese carpentry - and a canopy above are added. The carvings on the canopy frieze depict interlocking dragons and stylised medallions formed from the character for longevity.
The piece is tiger maple, and the overall dimensions are 2290mm x 2030mm x 1395mm (90in x 80in x 55in). As in the West, curtains were hung inside the bed to protect the sleeper from draughts and insects. This four-poster bed is more likely to have been a man's bed; the six-poster was a wedding bed and was often a dowry item brought into the marriage; this was more likely to be found in the women's quarters.
CarpentryThere is an association between those who could write, the 'Literati' and those who made tables for them to write on. The Emperor Tianqi (1605-1627) enjoyed woodworking, and guilds regulated the activity of carpenters. There was a difference between 'large carpentry', which included beams and roofs, and 'small carpentry', which covered doors, windows, screens between rooms and the furniture used in the rooms. Apprentices worked with relatives or friends, and were expected to start with menial tasks before slowly working up to greater skill levels. The apprentice was expected to do everything from his own observations, and, in some cases, the asking of questions was not allowed. If you could not see how to perform the task you would not acquire the knowledge. The guilds also organised the annual celebrations to honour their guardian deities. In the case of the carpenters this was Lu Ban - see bibliography below. Another example of the organisation of the craft is to be found in a Sung dynasty (960-1279) manuscript which deals with the sawyer. Rates of pay are indicated for plank sawyers - the cutting of oak attracted the highest and fir the lowest. An adjustment was made for re-sawing single lengths of old, re-used material which was 'full of nails'. There are also figures for the various tasks within a workshop. A common ratio is four rough carvers, four finish carvers, three joiners and one finisher, all within the same workshop. Another fact recorded is the use of oil, lacquer and ash to finish furniture. In fact, Chinese written records contain so much historical, but perhaps apocryphal, detail about the craft that their writing, just like their furniture, puts us to shame.
Suggestions of further titles to read are given to the right (See 'Bibliography' box out) for those who want to undertake further research.