Highland Woodworking
Book Review: Carving the Acanthus Leaf
By Mary May

Book Review by J. Norman Reid

As a regular book reviewer, I have the good fortune to read a steady supply of the best books on woodworking. I can say in all honesty that none of the books I review are bad books. Every one of them has something of value to offer woodworkers. Still, every now and then there arrives in my mailbox a book of such excellence that it stands head and shoulders above the rest. Mary May's Carving the Acanthus Leaf is such a book.

Mary May is a highly accomplished woodcarver who carves commissioned pieces of extraordinary quality in her modest Charleston, South Carolina, workshop. Perhaps it was her unusual childhood in a wanderlust and encouraging family that spurred her to apprentice for years in a series of European woodcarving shops. There she honed her talents and deepened her resolve to adopt carving as her life's work.

Her book is a fascinating mixture of artistry and design, carving technique and personal stories about her life as a carver. The foreword tells much of her life story, the development of her inquisitiveness and how she first became interested, then trained in carving.

Then it's on to the acanthus leaf. A common plant in southern Europe, the acanthus is almost regarded as an invasive species there, though its spiny leaves are sometimes cultivated for ornamental purposes in the U.S. and elsewhere. Chapter 1 traces the history of the acanthus leaf as a design element from its early Greek origins to the present time.

Chapter 2 gives an overview of the carver's tools and how they're used. She urges buying the best gouges you can afford, since properly cared for they'll last more than a lifetime. They're used two-handed, one hand on the handle for propulsion, the other on the shank to guide and restrain the power applied to the handle. Mary prefers long-handled gouges and favors European models. For a mallet, she chooses a 1 lb. or 1-1/2 lb. mallet with a brass or steel head. She recommends basswood or butternut when starting to carve because they are softer and have forgiving grain. Once skills have been developed, other woods such as mahogany, walnut, cherry and oak are good subjects.

Some power tools are helpful aids to carving. Mary has a scroll saw and finds that a bandsaw or coping saw are helpful for shaping larger pieces. The standing position works best, with the bench 1-2 inches below the elbows. She offers some tips: cut away from yourself for safety; secure the wood to a backing board with the grain running left and right; learn to carve using both hands to propel and guide the gouge; pay attention to grain direction and use slicing cuts. She explains several methods for transferring patterns to workpieces. And perhaps most importantly, she describes how she sharpens her gouges to keep them in prime cutting condition.

Chapter 3 offers an introduction to the acanthus leaf as it is carved. She emphasizes the importance of drawing the leaf before carving it, perhaps doing it many times until you get to the point that you can draw it freehand. This is a valuable skill that will pay dividends when you later begin to carve.

You will need to learn the terminology of the acanthus leaf—midrib, primary and secondary lobes, eyes, serrations, primary and secondary veins, pipes and wrinkle cuts—and Mary provides instruction.

In Chapter 4 she shows how to draw and carve the first of 13 examples of acanthus leaves. The basic acanthus leaf is symmetrical without complex curves or shapes, though it has some of the details that are incorporated in more complex designs encountered later in the book. As she does in each chapter, Mary gives step-by-step guidance on first drawing, then carving this example.

Chapter 5 presents the basic acanthus leaf with a twist, literally. In this example, the mid ribs are an S-curve rather than straight. This style, which originated in Italy, has been around from Roman times to the present. Chapter 6 teaches carving acanthus leaves as repeated patterns on a moulding.

As the book progresses, so does the intricacy and difficulty of the projects. The next chapter demonstrates a rosette. A design feature since the Roman Empire, rosettes can be round or oval, square or rectangular. Square or round rosettes are carved symmetrically with the four primary lobes evenly positioned, so the blank can be prepared on a lathe.

Furnituremakers will especially appreciate Chapter 8, which teaches carving acanthus leaves on cabriole legs. Though fashionable before Thomas Chippendale began to employ them, they nonetheless are closely associated with the style that bear his name. The acanthus leaves are typically carved on the knees, with feet that are ball and claw or trifid. This form was common in the mid to late 18th century, with reproductions occurring throughout the 19th century.

Acanthus leaves can also be incorporated in turnings, as Chapter 9 demonstrates. Examples are bed posts, lamps and table legs. Another application is on brackets used for architectural supports or corbels employed decoratively in conjunction with windows, fireplace mantels, beams and shelves, among other places.

An Italian Renaissance leaf comes next. Originating in Italy, it was most often associated with the Renaissance and Baroque periods. It incorporates a graceful S-shaped body that can then be complete in itself, repeated along a frieze or sometimes intertwined with other leaves. The succeeding chapter takes the Italian Renaissance leaf one step further by adding small curling extensions.

Scandinavian-style leaves are simpler in effect, formed as C-curves that often continue into S-curves, with smaller leaflets that flow from the main leaves. In this interpretation, the carvings are crisp, smooth and graceful, with eyes and pipes generally omitted. The Greek acanthus leaf has similarities to the later Roman and Byzantine styles. It features multiple V shapes that radiate out from the base toward sharply-pointed tips. The French Rococo leaf from 18th century France, lighter and more imaginative than the bold and dramatic Baroque design, employs asymmetrical C and S-curves.

The final example is a Baroque leaf, a repeated and expandable scrolling design of leaves and veins in bold style. This design has roots in ancient Greece and has survived because of its versatility and durability.

Several features make this a very special book. It is impeccably written. It is superbly illustrated with step-by-step drawings of each phase of the drawing process for each project and with full color photographs of each step of the carving process. It gives brief histories of the many variations of the acanthus leaf. It includes photographs of real-life examples of the acanthus leaf on furniture and in architectural applications. And charming human-interest interludes about Mary and her carving life are inserted between chapters, a feature I found utterly delightful.

The book, published by the redoubtable Lost Art Press, is cloth bound with a separate full-color slip cover.

In my opinion, this is a book not merely to own but to treasure. Woodcarvers will certainly want their own copies, as will cabinetmakers with a special interest in period furniture. So too architects, designers, furniture historians and anyone with an eye for beauty in design. I highly recommend it.

Find out more and purchase Carving the Acanthus Leaf by Mary May

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net.

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