What the devil is it?

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Sometimes you come by an object which is so inexplicable and so far outside your experience that you wonder if it has travelled through time and fetched up at your local saleroom by supernatural means. Here’s one such, which I bought a couple of years ago because I can’t stop myself buying unidentified woodcarvings. I’ll describe it first, and then I’ll try to give some account of where it might have come from, when it might have been made and what it might be. It’s a story with a touch of magic in it, and it’s almost certainly wrong on every count.

With antique objects, most mysteries can be solved either by assiduous online research or by asking someone who knows. For the former solution, there needs to be information online about the object or about something sufficiently similar to provide a line of enquiry. For the latter, you need to have enough information to be able to track down the appropriate expert to ask. With this particular object, I have got nowhere in either direction. I’m stumped.

P1010204It’s a small block of dense reddish wood about 15 cms or 6 inches high, carved into an oval cylinder some 12.5 cms (5 inches) lengthways and 8 cms (3 inches) across. I don’t know the type of wood, but boxwood or birchwood might be possibilities. The vertical surfaces are intricately carved in bas-relief with figures:

  • In the upper section a winged angel or goddess in high relief with two boys, one playing pan pipes, with a four-wheeled chariot apparently drawn by a 20180114_122335agoat. 
  • In the lower section, three distinct figure groups:
    • Below the angel or goddess, a gentleman paying respects to a couple, with a soldier or pikeman standing to the left, all dressed in elaborate court costumes which appear to be from the first half of the 17th century. 
    • On one long side, a group of about 13 figures in a variety of poses, also in 17th century court dress.
    • On the other long side, a group of six or seven figures in classical robes, at their centre a goddess holding out a wreath in each hand.

The piece is unfinished, with some of the figures in the classical group only present in outline, and only about one-third of the upper section carved.  Generally, the quality of carving on the finished figures is good in the costumes and detailing. The grouping and animation of the figures in the court scene is complex and sophisticated. But the faces seem primitive and generic.

All the uncarved surfaces appear to be hewn and not sawn.  The base is cut smooth, and the upper surface has a stepped shape, with a tapering hole cut in the centre about 8 cms (3 inches) deep.  This has been used in the past as a candle-holder, which has caused some discolouration and scorching to the top of the piece.    There is no sign of previous polychrome decoration.  Overall it is in fairly battered condition, with a split in the wood at one end and numerous minor losses to the carved figures.  The angel’s wings are truncated and she has lost both arms. 

So what is it? No idea. There’s no indication of what its purpose was, or what it might have become when it was finished. I can’t think of any possible use for an object of this shape and size as an element of a larger piece of sculpture or furniture.  The inconsistent nature of the carved scenes – a strange and illogical mixture of secular/historical, mythological and classical – doesn’t fit in with any form of decoration with which I’m familiar. It’s a hotch-potch – so was it perhaps a useful offcut of wood used as a practice piece or to train an apprentice? Was it a project intended to be made into a box or vessel but abandoned half-finished when the wood split? But when, where and by whom?

20180114_122520a.jpgHow old is it? The secular figures carved on the piece are dressed in sumptuous early 17th century fashion, and there’s a distinct baroque look and feel to the piece. But I can’t find other online examples of baroque bas-relief woodcarving showing figures in contemporary dress – although you often see this type of style in paintings from the period.  From the condition and patination and general style of the carving, I would judge that a 17th century date could be plausible. Or it could it be a later piece of historicism – but somehow that seems unconvincing.

Where’s it from? It’s definitely European – stylistically there’s no possibility of a Chinese or other Asian origin. But I don’t believe it’s British. If it were, it would probably be carved in oak. I can’t see any signs of southern European Mannerism, so I don’t think it’s from Italy or Spain or France. That leaves Northern Europe, which seems likeliest to me.

German or Swiss? There is of course the well-known and much-collected category of woodcarving usually known as Black Forest woodware. This would seem to be an easy answer. For example the master woodcarver Hermann Steiner produced some vaguely similar relief carving. But the woodcarving industry which grew up around the Swiss town of Brienz didn’t really get going until the early 1800s, and most of Steiner’s carving career took place within the 20th century. So if I’m right about my carving being 17th century, then the Black Forest has to be ruled out.

Flemish? The Low Countries have a long and celebrated history of woodcarving. But the style seems wrong, you’d expect the material to be oak, and Flemish carvers generally went for religious subjects. So probably not.

Scandinavian? Surely not? But wait! Have I at last found something vaguely comparable? It’s a long shot, but I believe I have.

halvor fandenHere’s a Nordic folk tale: once upon a time, in the Follo district of Norway, there lived a peasant farmer, musician and woodcarver called Halvor Fanden (c1600 –c1657). Halvor and his son Samuel were so uncannily skilled in woodcarving that they were believed to be in league with the devil. The word Fanden itself apparently translates as “devil”.

Halvor “was so great an artist in this manner of carving that wooden cups and other things that he had carved in basso relievo sold for their weight in silver; some examples of his skill are now in the Royal Museum, where they are shown as the greatest natural curiosities in the place”. (From The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, Volume 25, 1755).

OK, so is this blogger so desperate to find an origin for his woodcarving that he’s making up fairy stories?  Not quite. Halvor Fanden did indeed exist. Some of his famous carved birchwood tankards are indeed still in the Royal Collection in the National Museum in Copenhagen. Unfortunately there are no high-resolution images online but you can see from these photos that the carving and composition and shape and size do indeed have something in common with those elements of my mystery object. I wouldn’t call it a match, but I can’t find anything else even in the same ballpark.

So could my piece possibly be a half-finished and abandoned practice piece from the workshop of Halvor Fanden? The jury’s still out. After I bought it I sent emails and pictures to a couple of curators at the Copenhagen Museum but didn’t get a reply. Then my attention was diverted onto some other object and I’ve left it at that, an unresolved mystery.

If this little woodcarving is indeed by Fanden, it’s a rare and important object. Frankly, my theories don’t seem very convincing, even to me. But I’m stuck for any other ideas.

Nonsense or not, there is a definite attraction to a story involving Norwegian Wood, the Baroque, and a pact with the Devil. Alternative explanations might be available, but somehow I feel that the truth – if and when it ever comes – is almost certain to be a letdown.

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4 thoughts on “What the devil is it?

  1. How rude of the museum not to reply to you! I have found similar lack of courtesy from museums abroad. Here is another possibility: what about Switzerland? You could try the Latenium Museum in Neuchâtel. To pursue your investigations in Scandinavia, I suggest trying to contact an individual in Copenhagen who might intervene with the museum for you.

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    1. Hi Josephine. Thanks for the tip about Switzerland. I’m not familiar with the Latenium Museum but will certainly investigate. When I write to museums it’s usually to individual curators whose specialist interests I have researched – and my default expectation is that I won’t get an answer. So on those occasions when I do get a reply, it’s always a very welcome surprise. I’ve had enormous help with various bizarre objects from experts from all over the world – but sadly my experience has been that the worst responder of all is the V&A Museum in London! By the way, I’ve added a new posting to the blog just today – about a Victorian print. Best wishes. Roger

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    1. Hello Jocelyn.

      Thank you for looking at my blog and for your comment. I see what you mean about a possible nautical connection – the winged female figure attached to the bows does indeed have something of the look of a ship’s figurehead about her. But if this object served as a fixing for a mast, it could only have been on a model boat! The object is just 6 inches tall and the aperture in the top is about 1.6 inches in diameter.

      However, your comment has prompted me to wonder if the piece might actually be a short section cut from a ship’s mast, and then carved as a hobby by a sailor during a long sea voyage (in the same way that walrus ivory would be carved into scrimshaw). This seems an attractive idea, but I don’t know how I would prove it. The first step would be to find out if a Scandinavian wooden ship might be fitted with a mast with an oval cross-section?

      More research needed . . .

      Best wishes.

      Roger

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