There is a long tradition of whittling or carving little wooden animals in many countries and a wonderful range of techniques is used in their manufacture. As well as commercial production of toys such as Noah’s Arks and farmyard animals, individuals seem always have whittled little creatures for their own enjoyment and for presents.
The most amazing technique to carve animal shapes that I have come across is in the Erzgebirge region of north-eastern Germany. Wooden rings are turned on a lathe, cutting the profile of an animal. Once off the lathe, the ring is sliced up revealing the animal in the section.
My father carved me a small pike many years ago, which I still have on a shelf in my sitting room. And I have a vivid memory of watching a bodger carve an owl at one of our local agricultural shows (I was perhaps eight or nine years old). He had a short length of a fairly close-grained roundwood, about two inches in diameter and four inches long. The owl appeared out of the wood, as though perched on a fence post. It was all done with a knife until it came to finishing the furled wings on the owl’s back, when the bodger used a little gouge to pick out the effect of the feathers.
This past-time could even be said to go back to the Upper Palaeolithic carvings of animal forms in mammoth ivory, so beautifully displayed at the British Museum’s recent Ice Age Art exhibition. Were these little figures models, toys, totems, signifiers of group or personal identity, art?
I was asked by one of my neighbour’s daughters to carve her a duck. I’ve no idea why she chose a duck, but Ellie was adamant that I should make her a duck. Being my first foray into figurative carving I was a bit nervous. This is what came out of the little bit of ash that I used:
On seeing the duck, the older son of another neighbour asked for a whale. Toby likes dolphins and whales. Using the same tools – a straight knife and a spoon knife – on another ash scrap, here is the whale:
The photo doesn’t really show you the shape of the tail, but I’m glad I kept the bark on to suggest the whale’s scarred, barnacle-covered skin. These are simple, plain shapes and it is interesting to see what the human eye can do to fill in the gaps and identify a form that is suggested by a few lines and planes.
Toby’s little brother would like a bear…