The Diary of a Student Woodcarver


The Diary of a Student Woodcarver:
William Barsley describes carving a baroque scroll from Hampstead Parish Church, and his exciting trip to Venice.

William Barsley describes carving a baroque scroll from Hampstead Parish Church, and his exciting trip to Venice

This series follows my journey as I undertake a three-year diploma in Ornamental Woodcarving & Gilding at the City & Guilds of London Art School, turning my passion for woodcarving into a full-time profession. It was an amazing feeling to return to art school last October after what was an exciting summer spent partly in Iceland and partly carving at a traditional craft village in Devon. If anything, the break from studying helped me realise how important the course is, and how quickly it is passing. The second year is really a chance to build upon the lessons learned in the first, and to take on more diverse and challenging carvings in preparation for the grand final year projects. 

Carving the ‘prawn’
Our first carving project of the second year was a baroque scroll from a Commandment board in Hampstead Parish Church (nicknamed the ‘prawn’ at school due to its shape). The carving at Hampstead was restored by the Art School many years ago under the instruction of John Roberts (an exceptional carver
and former student and teacher at the City & Guilds of London Art School). Plaster casts of the new carving from Hampstead Parish Church were taken for future pupils to copy and, subsequently, it has become an important and long-standing part of the carving diploma. As always, our first step before carving was to draw an exact copy of the cast, giving us the size and a good template from which to transfer to the wood prior to bandsawing out the profile. We each used a beautiful piece of 100mm thick lime wood for the project, as the piece was to be carved out of one block.
We saved time by bandsawing the outline, but had to be careful when cutting out the curves as bandsawing such a thick section of wood can put strain on the blade. It was then a case of roughing out the carving, marking the various heights and dimensions of the ornament, and carving in the architectural element. This provides a useful guide when carving the leaves from the top.
The reason it’s such a good project to learn from is that there are so many different elements, from delicate leaves to crisp architectural mouldings running through the piece. It was easily one of my favourite carving projects so far.

The original carving by John Roberts

The finished baroque scroll

Woodcarving in venice
The Art School has organised a fantastic study trip to Venice each autumn for second-year carving and conservation students (both wood and stone). Over the week, we explored the famous sights of what was once one of the most important cities in the world.
During our time in Venice, we were lucky enough to stay on the tranquil island of San Giorgio Maggiore (an ex-Benedictine monastery) at the Cini Foundation, which is an internationally renowned centre for cultural research and learning. Looking out over the water to the famous Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Square, it was an ideal base from which to explore the city’s ancient sights and carvings.
The republic of Venice was once a crucial trading point between Asia and western Europe, making it a very wealthy and prosperous city. By 1204, Venice had sacked Constantinople and brought back vast amounts of Byzantine plunder. The considerable wealth and growth of the Venetian Republic resulted in huge investment in decorative palaces and churches, using the most skilled carvers and sculptors of the time.
Naturally, we couldn’t explore every nook and cranny that Venice had to offer, as that would take a lifetime, but each day began with a series of lectures on the carvings and sites we were to explore that day. Over the week, we focused on a select number of churches and important sites. 

The view from San Giorgio overlooking the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Square

Did you know?
Between 22 and 30 million tourists are estimated to visit Venice every year. Although this brings money to the economy, it puts a huge strain on the city, which is facing challenges from subsidence.

Sore necks at The Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace)
By far one of my favourite places we visited while in Venice was the Doge’s Palace, situated on the picturesque waterfront next to St Mark’s Square. Once the seat of government of the Venetian Republic and home to the Doge (magistrate and leader of the Republic), it officially opened as a museum in 1923. Externally, the palace is Gothic in style, however, it has a beautiful courtyard in the Renaissance style. Inside are vast staterooms that display extravagant interiors, richly carved in wood.
Walking into the staterooms, one is left speechless by the sheer scale of the carvings decorating the ceiling. What seemed like a whole forest was hanging above our heads. The skill of the joinery to keep such a significant weight of wood in place was outstanding. The only drawback was the inevitable sore necks we all suffered after staring at the ceiling for hours, in awe of this incredible work.

The Chamber of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace. At 53m long it is one of the biggest rooms in Europe

Stucco ceilings in the Doge’s Palace
Although not specifically woodcarving, I cannot mention the Doge’s Palace without talking about some of the incredible ceilings, hand-sculpted in stucco. Stucco is a form of plaster that can be sculpted wet and dries hard in position. It can be used for both sculptural and architectural purposes, and is often used for decorative ornament. Its light weight and ability to be sculpted around difficult curves means that incredible detail can be achieved over vaulted arches, as in the Doge’s palace.
Stucco has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and can, to this day, be seen on ancient buildings around the world. In the case of the Doge’s palace, stucco forms the perfect decorative link between the ceiling paintings and the architectural elements. My tutors explained that much of the stucco work would have been sculpted on site, leaving very little room for error. Venice proved to be an incredible city to explore. If you ever have the opportunity to visit and see the carvings and sites on offer, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Stucco ceilings in the Doge’s Palace

Ornate moulding in the Doge’s Palace

Top Tips
Bandsawing: It may seem obvious, but an important lesson that I learned the hard way was not to bandsaw right up to the line when cutting out leaves. If you do, you leave yourself with very little wiggle room to adjust the shapes during carving.
Undercutting: I always find this the fun bit of high-relief carvings but, with particularly delicate pieces such as this, some good advice we received was to lay it on a padded towel as clamping could have easily broken it.


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