The Diary of a Student Woodcarver


The Diary of a Student Woodcarver:
William Barsley describes his summer adventures exploring woodcarving in Iceland and setting up a workshop in Devon, England.

A reproduction of the Valþjófsstaður door in its original location at the Valthjófstad church copy

The Valþjófsstaður door at the National Museum of Iceland

Last summer, I was presented with the exciting opportunity to spend two weeks exploring and documenting woodcarving in Iceland. Although not as rich in traditional Nordic carving as Scandinavia, the influence that Viking culture had on Icelandic carving was fascinating, and I wanted to meet a few of the modern-day carvers who are keeping the tradition alive.
I began by exploring the capital, Reykjavík, and spent a couple of days at the National Museum of Iceland, which houses some incredible woodcarvings. My focus in particular fell upon a beautiful 11th-century door that is believed to be the oldest surviving woodcarving in Iceland. It is called the Valþjófsstaður Door and was once the main entrance of Valthjófstad church, located in the east of the country.
The door is made up of two large roundels that sit under a semi-circular arch. The intriguing scene in the upper roundel is believed to be a representation of the medieval Lion Knight saga from Chretien de Troyes. The lower roundel is carved in the Nordic style of interwoven bands and is a complex carving of beautiful geometric symmetry depicting four dragons intertwined in a fight. It is rare that such a carving has survived since the 11th century. Often, the wood decayed or was used on other buildings, as there was (and still is) a limited supply of timber in Iceland. 

A form of traditional Icelandic font called Höfðaletur, often carved in wood. Some of the oldest examples in Iceland are from the 16th-century copy

I met Jón in Reykjavík where he was holding an exhibition of his work in the famous Pearl building that overlooks the city. Jón began carving in 1986, studying at a woodcarving school in Iceland and spending three years working with the world-class sculptor Ian Norbury in England. Jón’s work is a wonderful mixture of contemporary sculpture that reflects his cultural heritage, and Nordic mythology that touches on technological changes in society. He co-founded Iceland’s first woodcarving guild and is an active participant at the International World Wood Day. 

Jón Adolf Steinólfsson at the Pearl gallery

Sculpture by Jón Adolf Steinólfsson

Leaving the capital, I headed off around Iceland’s ring road, a beautiful drive that stretches the whole way around the island, a little like London’s M25, but infinitely quieter and more scenic. About two or three hours out of Reykjavík I visited Sigga A Grund, who my tutors had strongly recommended, and I’m so glad I did. Sigga has been carving for more than 40 years and I was thrilled to learn that she spent some time studying woodcarving at the City & Guilds of London Art School back in the 1990s. Observing the carvings in her house, I was amazed to see some of the same projects that I’ve been working on at college, such as running moldings, head sculptures and acanthus reliefs.
Sigga is a highly accomplished carver who, like Jón, combines traditional and contemporary styles in her work. One of her great passions is carving realistic figures of Icelandic horses, and her work is on display at a nearby gallery called Treoglist. If you ever find yourself in Iceland, do visit this wonderful gallery. It holds a treasure trove of impressive sculptures and woodcarvings.

Sculpture by Sigga A Grund in the Treoglist gallery

Mouldings by Sigga A Grund – the same ones I’ve been carving at college

Did you know?
A thousand years ago 40% of Iceland’s land area was birch forest and woodland, but with the coming of settlers and subsequent deforestation and livestock grazing this dramatically declined. There is a joke told in Iceland that if you are lost in a forest all you need to do is stand up. 

Once back in the UK and fired up from my travels around Iceland, I headed for the beautiful hills and coastline of Devon, where I’d arranged to set up a small woodcarving workshop for six weeks in a traditional craft village called Cockington Court. I was keen to get a taste of setting up my own woodcarving workshop within a shared space as, once I complete my studies, I will, of course, need to decide what style of workspace I would like to work in.
Set in the grounds of the Cockington estate and open daily to the public, the craft village has more than 20 skilled craftsmen, including a blacksmith, glass blowers, gilders and a traditional chocolate-maker, to name but a few. I found working among other skilled craftsmen and being able to learn from each other and share ideas to be a great delight, and there was a real sense of community. This is highlighted in the large sculpture trail that is currently being exhibited in the grounds of the estate until the end of September, which brings together the work of the various craftspeople on site.
My time at Cockington Court fortunately coincided with an exciting commission I was working on for the Royal College of Arms – a gilded rampant stag sitting within a golden crown, which was part of the client’s heraldic crest. This was the perfect project to get my teeth into while at the workshop, and offered good practice in finding the right balance between interacting with the public and maintaining a productive workflow.

The stables at Cockington Court Craft Village

My first workshop, set within the stables at Cockington Court


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