Forgotten Gems of the Arts & Crafts Movement
by Douglas Schneible
While collectors and dealers clamor for the few remaining mission Stickley bargains that may lurk in the marketplace, knowledgeable arts & crafts collectors are quietly picking up choice examples of pyrographic art also known as burntwood, flemish, or poker art that still can be found for modest prices.
Pyrography, a word of Greek derivation, is the art of writing or "engraving with fire." (Pyro meaning "fire" and graphy meaning "to incise or engrave"). Pyrography has its modern day roots in nineteenth century France though it was practiced much earlier in other parts of Europe. Women's Home Companion in an 1899 article accredits two Frenchmen, M.M. Pacquelin and Manual Perier with its modernization and commercialization. Pyrography was especially popular in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain (where it was known as "poker art"), and France, Germany, and Austria from about 1870 to 1930. Earlier pyrography was practiced in Germany, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Spain to name a few more countries. Many tribal cultures such as those of the Zulu s in Africa, the Australian Aboriginal, some northeastern Native American tribes, and tribal New Guinea and Oceania utilized a cruder burntwood form for decorating utilitarian goods. Nice, reasonably priced pyrographic examples from these countries and tribal cultures can still be found with a bit of searching. In America today pyrography is alive and well and is still widely practiced in craft circles.
The standard pyrographic equipment of the turn of the century included kits containing metal platinum points with wood handles used to scorch or burn wood and leather surfaces; a spirit lamp; a glass container to hold benzene or alcohol; rubber tubes- one attached to a syringe like bulb; and oils and stains. The platinum points could be kept hot by pumping gas with the bulb to the platinum tip. A wooden box or leather object could be incised with a desired design. Wood burning sets with instructions could be purchased from commercial suppliers in France and in the United States of America. In addition, these same suppliers offered catalogs featuring small unfinished wood and leather objects as well as more expensive cased furniture "blanks" stamped with a specific pattern ready for burning. The pyrographer could then burn and finish the object following the stamped design on the piece or else he or she could incise their own design without the benefit of the stamped impressions for a unique embellishment.
Quality and Design Vary with Artist and Trends
Finishing techniques and quality vary with the professionalism of the amateur artist. Some objects could be purchased completely finished from manufacturer catalog suppliers such as Chicago based Thayer and Chandler- high quality examples executed by professional tradespeople. Alternatively, most pyrographers preferred to finish their own goods and so the work of budding amateurs may lack clarity of detail and design. Red, green, and yellow stains were common stains used in their finish work. Period publications like "the Modern Priscilla" or "Women's Home Companion" offered additional patterns for active pyrographers that could be applied to all sorts of items: handkerchief boxes, mirrors, plaques, even wood and leather postcards! The more ambitious could tackle larger, more expensive and more time consuming case pieces: chairs, tables, desks, bookshelves, and even large leather hides. Design motifs include: nouveau, deco, mission including native American, Dutch, English medieval, Gibson Girls, and popular themes of the time.
While small pyrographic boxes are still abundant today for less than $25 a piece, larger furniture size pieces and unusual accessories that are finely incised and well executed are always hard to find. Nicely painted pieces in original condition are rarer still. The scarcest of all are pieces made by folk artists from scratch and who developed their very own unique embellishments in contrast to amateur artisans who simply "followed the dots" by buying pre manufactured pieces with manufacturer stamped patterns. There were however a handful of genuine American professional pyrographers who elevated the artform from amateur folkart to fine art.
Charles H. F. Turner: Boston Etcher and Professional Pyrographer
Charles Henry Francis Turner (1848-1908) , a Boston etcher and fine arts painter at the turn of the century, created some of the finest, most detailed pyrographic artworks. Because of his sojourn to France in the late l880's, he specialized in European and French influenced master paintings and portraits. This stint undoubtedly influenced his love of painting portraits and no doubt exposed him to early French pyrography...an artform which he later practiced and brought to America. At least three pyrographic portraits of European ladies are known to exist along with one outstanding pyrographic furniture piece: an oak blanket chest which he incised on the top lid: "This chest decorated in pyrography by me Charles H.F. Turner for my grand daughter Elise 1901". He signs his pyrographic artworks "CHT" and he was a frequent exhibitor at the Boston Art Club including the Boston Art Exhibition in 1898 where his portrait of a classic French Lady was exhibited. Pyrographic commercialization took a giant step forward when a Midwestern firm attempted marketing pyrographic embellished mission furniture during the hey day of the American arts and crafts movement.
STEWART BURNTWORK: A Grand Experiment
At the turn of the century, The George S. Stewart Company of Norwalk Ohio embarked upon a grand experiment. They issued a catalog of pyrographic embellished oak furniture and accessories according to the Grand Rapids Furniture Record of October, 1901. Little is known of their eventual success but judging from existing artworks in collections, it was a short lived experiment as only a handful of surviving pieces are known.
Sleeping Giants of the Millenium?
Like any arts and crafts category, value depends on form, quality, artisan, supply and demand. Chairs, tables, and book shelves can still be found for just a few hundred dollars a piece though exceptional pieces such as a grandfather clock or scratch made cabinet could be worth thousands. Larger cased pieces are difficult to find. They are rare because they were not mass produced in large numbers, often took months and sometimes years to incise, were the most expensive to purchase as blanks from manufacturers, and suffered the ravages of time. Unique forms built and burned from scratch by folk artisans with fine design and in good condition are genuine prizes. Tribal burntwood artworks from Australian Aboriginal, Oceania , African and Native American cultures are receiving greater interest from dealers and collectors as this new category opportunity emerges and reasonable prices still exist..
Patient collectors and savvy dealers will be rewarded by seeking and acquiring good quality, larger sized pieces or unusual smaller pyrography forms including tribal burntwood artworks. If you are lucky enough to find a scarce pyrography catalog by Chicago based Thayer and Chandler Company- one of several turn-of-the-century commercial pyrography suppliers- by all means snap it up...it would make a fine acquisition to round out your collection!