Friday, July 16, 2010

Folk Art in the Tower of London

As reported in my July 9 post, on my recent trip to London I encountered striking examples of English traditional crafts in the most unlikely places. Today’s focus is on the wood carvers of Britain, a group whose output was as illustrious as that of the more well-known stone masons who fashioned the cathedrals and monuments we see throughout Europe. The wood carvers were just as skilled, but their work does not survive in the same numbers owing to the fragility of their chosen medium.

The wood carvings that fascinated me the most in London were from a centuries-old display tucked away in the recesses of the Tower of London. As you may know, the Tower is a large complex consisting of many buildings constructed over the course of nearly a millennium. The central building (seen at the top of this post) is the earliest, and is known as the White Tower. In a room on one of the upper floors of this structure I found a series of carvings that were much more interesting than the Royal Armor that most people were viewing in adjacent galleries.

These carvings were associated with a display of British Royalty first created in the old royal palace at Greenwich in the 16th century, and moved to the Tower by 1660. The display was called the Line of Kings, and consisted of sculpted equestrian statues of the succession of English kings up to the present day (see the illustration of the display from 1660 above, second from top). Additional figures and horses were added over the years, employing the leading carvers of the day (whom the labels do not identify), until the late 18th century.

The carved horses are magnificent, and very reminiscent of the carousel figures we know so well in the United States. These animals truly project the power and authority of their former “riders” (the labels give no indication of the current location of the figures of the kings themselves) and the sculptors went to great lengths to show realistic poses and musculature.

Off to one side of this display is something really strange: a case full of carved mahogany heads (below). Human heads. At first I thought this may be the kings, but the label told me that they were in fact a sculpted King’s Guard, a 136-man unit added in the early 19th century to “attend” the Line of Kings. All that remains today are the heads and hands.

These 17th-century horses and 19th-century heads attest to the continuity of the European carving traditions that immigrants brought to America’s shores from the time we were an English colony. We see their contributions to American folk art in ship carving, commercial sculpture (show figures such as cigar store Indians), carousel horses, and circus carvings. This is just another clear indication that even the humblest of our folk art forms has an illustrious ancestry.

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