IRISH BOG-OAK ORNAMENTS
We are always glad to draw public attention to any efforts of the sister island connected with the Fine Arts. One branch of Art-manufacture exclusively Irish deserves something more than the passing notice we gave it in our papers on the Exhibition of Manufactures, Machinery, and Fine Arts, inaugurated last summer in Dublin: we mean the manufacture of ornaments from Irish bog-oak. In condensation, as it were, for the coal-fields of England, Ireland possesses vast tracts of peat-moss or bogs: in these have been found, deeply buried, the relics of primaeval forests which flourished, it may be, before man had trodden the earth. Oak, fir, deal, and yew, have been dug up and used for firing and other purposes. But in the present century the hand of Art has converted portions of this product from comparative uselessness to articles of artistic value.
Tho history of bog-oak manufacture is somewhat interesting. When George IV. visited Ireland, in 1821, a person of the name of McGurk presented him with an elaborately carved walking-stick of Irish bog-oak, the work of his own hands, and received, we believe, a very ample remuneration. The work was much admired, and McGurk obtained several orders from time to time. Subsequently a man of the name of Connell, who lived in the lovely lake district of Killarney, commenced to do somewhat more regular business in carving the oak to be found plentifully in the district, and selling his work to the visitors as souvenirs of the locality. The trade prospered sufficiently to induce him to establish himself in Dublin, some twenty years ago, and at his retirement the business, now a profitable one, passed to his son-in-law, Mr. Cornelius Goggin, of Nassau Street. The beauty of the carving, and the elegance of the designs, chiefly taken from objects of antique Irish Art, made these ornaments the fashion not only in Ireland, but in England. The Queen, the Prince Consort, and other members of the royal family and the nobility, were purchasers of the most beautiful specimens; and so, carving in Irish bog-oak attained the position of a native Art, giving employment to many hands, and supporting many establishments.
The oak is black, and as hard as ebony; that best suited for carving is brought from the counties of Meath, Tipporary, Kerry, and Donegal. Of a load, which will be purchased for about thirty shillings, a considerable portion is unfit for use, by reason of flaws or splits. The wood is cut into pieces suitable for carving, and is worked on the end of the grain or section, and not on the length of the grain, or plank-wise. The process of carving is similar to that of ivory. The more experienced workmen carve designs without any pattern before them, and can earn from forty to fifty shillings a week; the wages of the less expert vary from ten shillings upwards; and women earn nearly as much as men. The total number of persons employed in this artistic handicraft is something over two hundred. Many of them work on the premises of their employers, while others take the material to their own houses.
A method of producing very fine effects at a great saving of cost and labour, has been patented by Mr. Joseph Johnson, of Suffolk Street. This is effected by stamping: the piece of wood, cut to the required size, is placed on the top of the die, which latter is heated by means of a hot plate of metal upon which it stands; over the wood a similar hot plate is laid; upon this a powerful screw-press descends, and the wood receives the impress of the die as freely as wax, the bitumen in it preventing the fibre from cracking or crumbling. In this way object of exquisite delicacy and very high relief, almost to the height of an inch, are produced in a moment. The designs thus obtained by the die are readily distinguishable from those wrought by the carver's tool; they want the extreme sharpness of the carving, but they are capable of showing, in compensation, more minute figuring and more elaborate details.
The dies, some of which are very beautiful in design, and all sharply cut, are made on the premises.
This branch of trade has done some service to Art in Ireland, by producing many excellent native carvers, several of them in the humblest walks of life. Amongst those one pre-eminently deserves to be mentioned. Many years ago, three ladies of the name of Grierson, persons of education and refinement, turned their attention to educating some of the young people in their neighbourhood, in the Dublin mountains, in the art of wood-carving, as they had seen it practised in Sweden. The project was successful, and amongst the pupils one of the name of Thomas Rogers attained to such excellence that his work will safely bear comparison with the best artists of any country. He is of course in full business. From time to time he comes down from his retired home, a glen in the Dublin mountains, known by the poetic name of Glen-na-Smohl, or the "Valley of the Thrush"–receives his orders, takes home his wood, and returns in due time with his work executed in the most exquisite manner. This year he executed for Mr. Johnson, of Suffolk Street, one of the most elaborate and beautiful pieces of work that has ever been produced in this country–the large bog-oak box made for the purpose of holding the Irish lace presented to the Princess of Wales by the ladies of Ireland, the box being a gift to her from the Irish gentry.
It is not easy to estimate the amount of the sales of bog-oak work. Mr. Johnson sells between Â£4,000 and Â£5,000 a year, and Mr. Samuel, Mr. Connell, and others, do a proportionably large business. It is to be regretted that a very inferior imitation is produced in England, made of common deal, stamped and coloured, which is sold as genuine Irish carved bog-oak. It can, however, deceive only the very ignorant or the very unwary.
The stranger who visits Dublin may dispose of an idle hour very agreeably in the inspection of the shops where these bog-oak ornaments are sold. The principal establishments are those of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Goggin, already alluded to, and of the brother of the latter in Grafton Street, and those of Mr. Samuel in Nassau Street, and Mr. Johnson in Fleet Street. Articles of very much the same character may be seen in them all. Antique sculptured crosses in high relief, round towers, abbeys, antique brooches and fibulae, harps, shamrocks, and other national emblems, besides a multitude of articles used in the boudoir and the drawing-room.
Unhappily there are not many Irish manufacturers: it is a duty to encourage those that do exist: they will in time become better as well as more numerous: we have strong faith not only in the capabilities of the country–so fertile in raw materials of every available and useful kind–but in the power of its people to turn them to valuable account.
Source: The Art Journal - 1865