Tag Archives: woodwork

Trinity

12 Nov

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Yggdrasil – the World Tree of Norse Mythology – traditionally a gigantic ash, is the tree upon which Odin hung in his never ending quest for wisdom. He drank from the stream which courses beneath the roots of the great tree and he lost an eye in payment. Mimir is  literally ‘The Rememberer’.

I made this bed as a commission for the generous and thoughtful mother of a beloved daughter and her partner as the seal upon their hard won quest to design and build their own home. The bed frame is made from a very old and spalted Fraxinus excelsior or European Ash, and the posts and book matched laths of the head board are derived from a huge yew tree which had languished in a stack of 4 inch boards in a builder’s garage in Beighton for many years.

When I consulted the family of three, the daughter requested that I carve a celtic knot – also known as a Triquetra – in the foot board.

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The triquetra has a well known modern Christian resonance: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and in ancient Celtic and neo-pagan traditions representing the Sacred Feminine – the three ages of woman: Maiden, Mother and Crone.

My Mam a single mother in the 1960’s and 70’s used to say that together, she, my brother and I were invincible because we were a ‘three’. She believed that the number 3 had immense power.

Pythagoras taught that 3 is the first true number because it forms the first geometrical figure, a triangle. Odin’s valknut, a symbol of three interlocking triangles is a symbol of great power and significance in Viking Folklore. This one is carved on the Stora Hammars Stone on the Swedish Island of Gotland and it is intimately associated with the All Father.

valknut-stora-hammars-iIn the words of historian H.R. Ellis Davidson, “Odin had the power to lay bonds upon the mind, so that men became helpless in battle, and he could also loosen the tensions of fear and strain by his gifts of battle-madness, intoxication, and inspiration.” She and others interpret the Valknut, with its knot-like appearance, as a symbolic expression of this idea (Ellis Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 147.).

To carve a Triquetra, one has to first draw three interlocking circles to form the outline these are also known as ‘Borromean’ rings (after the Italian family Borromeo’s coat of arms)

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And then you can get down to the business of carving…

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…which involves repeatedly stabbing vertically along the outline of the motif and then gouging into the wood toward the stab line. This takes a lot of concentration, especially when one has already made the foot board as a single modular piece.

Carving directly onto a completed piece of furniture requires concentration and what we might call ‘bottle’ or courage. I learned from my client that her daughter and co-owner of the bed is a hand surgeon – I can think of no greater need for bottle than when working to repair that quintessentially primate character, the hand. The hand is my instrument, my means of expression and so I decided to go for broke and carve straight into the finished head board out of respect for my clients.

Speaking of bottle my younger brother Simon who lives in San Francisco and is both a master carpenter, music maker and brewer of fine Pale Ales might approve of this Trinity – it is perhaps quite apposite for us Littlewood brothers.

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It appears on an American IPA, Ballantine and is of 7.2% alcohol by volume – potent!

 

 

 

 

Conception

22 Oct

fertility

Conception can mean the precise instant a sperm fertilises an ovum to make an embryo, or, how something is perceived – as in a ‘concept‘.

My son-in-law and daughter Alan and Polly Howden told us that they were expecting a baby in Spring – this had the effect of making me feel very happy for them and for my wife and I. Unfortunately my head was instantly filled with woodwork projects ranging from spoons, to bowls, rattles and roundabouts, cots and cradles, basinets and boats, rocking horses and tree houses. My head was literally filled with wooden concepts!

Sometimes, as in the figured sycamore of the little sideboard below, Nature can be quite literal.

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This little sideboard, made for a wonderful and witty client is called, for obvious reasons – ‘Fertility’. When it was finished, she said to me, “The nice thing about this cabinet is that no-one in the whole world will ever have one like it!”

This is how I try to respond to my customers desires. It is the true essence of ‘bespoke’. We spoke and it was, in my hands and thanks to a splendid tree…. to be. Like children and treasure, all my designs are unique.

Recently, I completed a corner cabinet for a new Exhibition at Yorkshire Artspace called ‘Curious Cabinets‘. I thought of it as ‘Mrs Caligiari‘s  Cabinet’.

The organiser, Sharon Moss, a fine artist, arranged an adventurous trip to the Alfred Denny Zoology museum at Sheffield University to inspire the participants.

I make my living as a carpenter and sculptor by ‘making to commission’, this process and the nature of the material I work with are integral to my artistic practise.  It was obvious to me that I needed a client to make for in order to be truly inspired. I was not interested in trying to find a cabinet and fill it with things in order to make a piece of art, or tell an interesting story. To me the cabinet is the concept.

My friend Chiara Bet, an illustrator and jeweller and I had a useful discussion and agreed to be my conceptual ‘client’ – I like working for people with a vivid imagination and I had already made a piece for her in the past. As both of us have an interest in anatomy, the Divine Comedy by the incomparable Dante Alighieri and the bizarre, I decided that I would design a cabinet fit for her work and entertain the curious notion that a cabinet might, in time, be transformed by its contents. I committed several hundred pounds worth of my best timber stock to the venture and a significant chunk of time – about 200 man hours in all. I also enlisted the help of a glass artist Debra Burrell who slumped (curved in a kiln) two pieces of glass for me so that I could make an elegant a bow fronted door.

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Here it is in my studio, and here it is as it appears right now in the Exhibition at Exchange Place, filled with Chiara’s jewellery and some of her drawings hidden away in a secret drawer.

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There are no shelves in the interior, but I have carved deep grooves and folds in the flesh-like lacewood to display the jewellery and give a sense of fertilised and developing embryos.

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A spinal column is visible and at the rear a tail. The legs are ‘Queen Anne’ – so it looks like it might scuttle away when you are not looking. The floor is carved as the interior of a womb, and the whole represents the placental mammalian cabinet of life. Access to the secret drawer ….. well, you will have to come and see for yourself to find out how and why.

This wholly piece of furniture was designed by me from the fertilisation of ideas arising from a dialogue – a concept I firmly believe sits at the root of all intelligence.

The Judges at Art in the Gardens seemed to like it enough to give it a Gold Award at the Sheffield Botanic Gardens this summer.

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Speaking of the Howden/Littlewood concept, I shall enjoy being a making sort of grandfather.

Curve

1 Jan

A catenary describes the curve adopted by a chain suspended from two points –  gravity acting uniformly along its length. I have been trying to suss out the right curvature for the top rail of a new four poster bed and playing with chains has helped.

Catenary

As you can see, the chain is slightly more curved in the middle than at the ends, like the steam bent lath of oak on top of it.

Catenary curves are important in architecture – particularly in bridge building – because of the way that they resist bending moments. Gaudi loved them so much, all the spires of his great cathedral, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, are based upon the catenary curve – here is his fantastic inverted string model complete with tiny sand bags… a spider’s web of catenary curves.

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View of Nativity Façade of Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family (Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família) ( UNESCO World Heritage Site). Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

If you are curious there are many mathematical treatments of catenary curves and their analogies in nature (skeletons). You will find them everywhere if you care to look. The lovely ‘Winking Bridge’ across the Tyne in Gateshead, dogs on leads, electricity cables hanging from pylons…

Gateshead      Catenary curves

I would be the first to admit that I am no mathematician, but I do love symmetry in natural forms. The completed Ruskin Sculpture – Mir Jansen and I will be exhibiting at the Millennium Gallery, consists of a framework of steam bent, thin oak laths on a sturdy base attached to a circular annulus to make a light, airy framework. Within the framework hang a series of paintings by Mir in gouache on panels of oak all cut from the same tree. The paintings appear to float within the interior of the sculpture, each suspended on 3 or 4 powerful magnets.

The laths are identical to the one in the top picture.  They were bent over a hemispherical frame – the slight recoil on removing the dried piece 24 hours later yields a catenary curve  (rather like the opening curvature of the helix generated by the golden mean below). This gives the sculpture great stability and natural spring, and like the Earth, it is, as a result, an oblate spheroid.

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The globular gallery is designed with 37 steam bent ribs – a convenient opening at the front for people to step in to structure. I have always thought of it as John Ruskin’s Mind – ideas within leaking out, ideas without leaking in.

The design also allows disabled access as I have taken a bite out of the floor so that you can feel that you are right inside – even in a wheel chair, and sit comfortably too.

But why 37 ribs?

37 is a prime number in the Padovan sequence.

Padovan sequence

The equation for the Padovan Sequence is
 defined by the equation:
P(n) = P(n-2) + P(n-3)            also known as a recurrence relation where every subsequent number depends upon the numbers before it.
with the initial conditions P=(0) = P (1) = P (2) = 1
The first few Padovan numbers are :  1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 12, 16, 21, 28, 37, 49, 65, 86, 114, 151, 200, 265  (the Prime numbers are in Bold)
Another recurrence relation with which you will be familiar is the Fibonacci Sequence:
Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2
with the initial conditions – F0=0, F1=1
giving the series of numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, … (The next number is found by adding up the two numbers before it). Without going into it in detail the formula which allows you to calculate the nth Fibonacci number relies on a special number called phi (1.618), or better know as the Golden Mean. Rectangles with sides 1:1.618 can be used to derive spirals, snail shells and so on.
fibonacci-plant  divine ratio (a sequence of golden rectangles – Yin and Yang)
The Golden Ratio…1.618 (approximately) lies at the heart of proportions of beauty in Greek Architecture.
Greek Architecture
John Ruskin certainly appreciated structure at a deep level, in fact he insisted upon the importance of underlying Natural Laws and Principles in architecture (The Seven Lamps of Architecture)  and it is no accident that the sculpture resonates with the maths. Mir’s paintings reflect other aspects of Ruskin’s thinking … come and see them at the Millennium Gallery from January 23rd 2016 when our piece will be on display as part of an exhibition on contemporary Art and Craft.
This is a chain of thought, I hope you enjoy the links. Happy New Year!
Acknowledgements:
The entire structure was made from a single oak tree – a very kind donation by the Guild of St. George from Ruskinland, through John Isles who supported our work and encouraged us. We were commissioned by Museums Sheffield and generously supported by Arts Council England.

Rocking

28 Oct


I delivered this piece today to a lovely couple in Sheffield who, hopefully will enjoy rocking their baby boy to sleep or reading him a story before bed time.

When I was asked to make it I talked to my dad, and he remembered the rocking chair his mother brought over from Ireland to Huddersfield before he was born. The key features he liked were the drawer beneath the seat where he kept his comics (Eagle – my favourite as a boy too). He likes the fact that it had wings for that feeling of coziness.

I designed this rocking chair around a child’s solid Georgian wing backed chair and used Yew and Oak for the main body. The rockers and the top yoke are made of ash.

Childs-rocking-chair-d Georgian

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The seat,big enough for a parent and child, or two kids side by side, and is deeply carved by hand using a Travisher.

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Movement is at the core of woodwork. Whether it is carving, slicing, shaving, cutting, sanding or polishing – all movements are reciprocal and curvilinear. I think best in curves – approaching a problem from left of field, fielding a curve ball – this makes me happy.

Breathing is tidal, reciprocal, oscillatory – as is the flow of blood.

Straight lines between destinations may be quick – but I’d rather you rock me gently, and let me sway.

Odysseus

19 Jul

Iliad and Odysey

‘Aphorism’ – a word first coined by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates (he of the medical oath) is by definition a ‘delimitation’ – an astute, often funny and therefore memorable distillation of a general truth.

“A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep” W.H. Auden

“Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic” W.H.Auden

“Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.”  Thomas Sowell

Or on a more practical note:

“Measure twice and cut once”

The mantra of woodworkers and builders everywhere, avoiding waste of costly materials.

 

Our actions and emotions can rarely be elegantly circumscribed in such an aphorism. They are not delimited at all but subject to the temptations of the seven deadly or cardinal sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride.

“Annabeth: My fatal flaw. That’s what the Sirens showed me. My fatal flaw is hubris.
Percy: the brown stuff they spread on veggie sandwiches?
Annabeth:No, Seaweed Brain. That’s HUMMUS. hubris is worse.
Percy: what could be worse than hummus?
Annabeth: Hubris means deadly pride, Percy. Thinking you can do things better than anyone else… Even the gods.”
Rick Riordan, The Sea of Monsters

As a school boy I was given a fantastic school prize for English – Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, the epic poem about the Greek Heroes of myth, the capricious whims of the Gods and the epic Trojan Wars. I have to admit, in reading these stories I developed a particular soft spot for Odysseus, the cunning sailor, leader and architect of the ‘Horse’ a device built as a gift for the Trojans. As we all know it hid their doom – Odysseus and a strike force of warriors. The wooden horse was taken behind the Fortress walls by the unsuspecting enemy, thinking it a peace offering, whilst the rest of the Greek navy sailed off. Odysseus and his heroes emerged from the horse and slaughtered the Trojans in the night.

It took the Greeks ten years to achieve this victory, after which they all sailed home.

But Odysseus was not so lucky.

On the long return home Odysseus was waylaid by Polyphemus, the Cyclops and son of Poseidon. Odysseus had to use all his cunning to trick the Cyclops in order to escape and then rescue his men. Without wishing to spoil the story for you, I can say that Odysseus’ cleverness succeeded, but, as he sailed away he made the fatal mistake of boasting about his intellectual prowess. He displayed hubris.

Poseidon heard his boasts and cursed him to roam the seas for an agonising length of time never to return home to his beloved wife Penelope. He encountered monsters, sorceresses, strange beings and lost all his beloved friends and companions in this odyssey. A hefty price for over-confidence.

The other day, a lovely Italian couple, Roberta and Lorenzo came to see me to ask me if I could design and make them a bed. As they are both working away from home they wanted a special piece of furniture which they could retreat to at the end of the day and which in the future they could ship back to Italy.

To help me with the design brief I asked them this:

“Can you give me a clue about yourselves so that I can design something special and original for you?”

Roberta said “Do you know the Myth of Odysseus?”

I said “Odysseus was the King of Ithaca, he made his wife Penelope a bed made from a living Olive Tree.” My heart sang with excitement.

Well, to cut a long story short – I got the commission! I was able to come up with a design that they both liked I think, but rather than be over confident I invited them to put their own stamp on their commission. Here is Roberta Pyrographing Etna and Florence (their birth places) on a piece of lace wood (Penelope weaving her tapestry), and Lorenzo (Odysseus) is carving the whorl on his side of the bed.

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The best cure for hubris is humility, because there is no fun in being alone with one’s pride.

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Shed

29 Nov

Shed

Every man should have a shed. In my case courtesy of Yorkshire Artspace I now have a very fine studio, suitable for woodworking, teaching future woodworkers, thinking and making, developing my business.

Various factors made me chose to install myself here in this lovely Art Deco pile below the old Castle Market in Sheffield. My small business has expanded to the point where I need to process timber more efficiently and have several projects ‘on the go’ at any one time. I realised that working within a community of artists and makers was potentially very beneficial, and much safer, and serendipity was involved in it’s discovery. Wes Hedge, a woodworker friend, gave me the heads up a couple of months ago and hey presto – a perfect super duper shed.

The studio has high ceilings with skylights allowing natural daylight in; it is on the ground floor with easy access to a proper load bay and it is an annex to the main building. This means I can work safely and make a bit of noise without annoying my artistic colleagues and neighbours.

Clients can visit and see their commissions taking shape in a generous space which gives them room to think, and they can view finished pieces and stock.

I feel as if I finally have a head space fit for creating rustic, fine and lovingly crafted wooden pieces.

The acoustics are awesome too – my old Dual CS505 LP player and NAD amplifier sound better than ever…. to find me:

www.henkswoodwork.co.uk